Social Media and Teen Mental Health

Updated June 23, 2024 | Posted August 10, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
The image is a close-up of three young girls peering down at their smartphones.

The U.S. Sur­geon General’s 2023 Social Media and Youth Men­tal Health advi­so­ry out­lines the lat­est sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence regard­ing social media’s effects on youth men­tal health. The report rec­om­mends actions that pol­i­cy­mak­ers, tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies, par­ents and oth­ers can take to ensure the online safe­ty of young peo­ple. This post high­lights key find­ings from the advisory.

Key Take­aways

  • Teenagers use of social media is wide­spread and pervasive.
  • Social media use can ben­e­fit teens, but it can also be detri­men­tal to a young user’s health, lead­ing to tech addic­tion, sleep deficits, increased lev­els of stress and more.
  • Social norms and expec­ta­tions, a fear of miss­ing out and a desire to con­nect with friends are some of the fac­tors fuel­ing social media among teens. 
  • Fam­i­lies, tech com­pa­nies, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and oth­ers must work togeth­er to cre­ate safer and health­i­er social media envi­ron­ment for young people. 

Key Dri­vers of Social Media Use in Teens

A num­ber of fac­tors dri­ve social media use among teens. These include:

  • A desire to con­nect with others.
  • A fear of miss­ing out.
  • Social pres­sure and expectations.
  • Hyper­con­nec­tiv­i­ty to technology. 
  • Feel­ings of stress, anx­i­ety, depres­sion or boredom. 

Social media tools are, by design, filled with click-bait con­tent and acces­si­ble 247. These tools can elic­it a grat­i­fy­ing dopamine response in some users that can lead to psy­cho­log­i­cal crav­ings and addiction.

Cur­rent Lev­els of Teen Social Media Use

Vir­tu­al­ly all teens (95%) ages 13 to 17 use social media, with more than 1 in 3 report­ing that they use it almost con­stant­ly.” While most U.S. social media plat­forms require users to be at least 13 years old, near­ly 40% of kids ages 8 to 12 use social media. The advi­so­ry also noted:

  • Ado­les­cents who use social media more than three hours per day face twice the risk of expe­ri­enc­ing poor men­tal health outcomes.
  • A recent sur­vey found that eighth and 10th grade stu­dents spend an aver­age of 3.5 hours per day on these platforms.

How Does Social Media Affect Teens

Social media use can affect teenagers in both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive ways. Researchers are still eval­u­at­ing the long-term risks of social media, due to the new­ness of the tech­nol­o­gy. How­ev­er, a grow­ing body of evi­dence strong­ly links heavy social media use among teenagers to a num­ber of neg­a­tive outcomes.

Neg­a­tive Psy­cho­log­i­cal Effects of Social Media on Teen Men­tal Health

Numer­ous stud­ies show that high­er lev­els of social media use among chil­dren and ado­les­cents are linked to adverse effects:

  • depres­sion and anxiety;
  • inad­e­quate sleep (which can dis­rupt neu­ro­log­i­cal devel­op­ment and lead to depres­sion and sui­ci­dal behaviors;
  • low self-esteem;
  • poor body image;
  • eat­ing dis­or­der behav­iors; and
  • online harass­ment.

These risks are greater for girls ver­sus boys and for those already expe­ri­enc­ing men­tal health issues. Addi­tion­al risks include:

  • Near­ly 2 in 3 ado­les­cents are often” or some­times” exposed to hate-based con­tent on social media.
  • Stud­ies have found a con­nec­tion between social media cyber­bul­ly­ing and depres­sion among young people.
  • Teen girls and LGBTQ youth are more like­ly to expe­ri­ence cyber­bul­ly­ing and online harass­ment, which can lead to neg­a­tive emotions.

Ben­e­fits of Social Media on Teen Men­tal Health

There are also pros to teens using social media, such as:

  • Social engage­ment, includ­ing keep­ing in touch with exist­ing friends and class­mates as well as dis­cov­er­ing new con­nec­tions and net­works of mutu­al­ly shared interests.
  • Oppor­tu­ni­ties for cre­ativ­i­ty and self-expression.
  • Civic and com­mu­ni­ty engagement.
  • Expand­ed access to infor­ma­tion and ser­vices (for exam­ple: online therapy).

Social media use can be par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful for con­nect­ing mar­gin­al­ized young peo­ple, such as sex­u­al and gen­der minori­ties. For instance, accord­ing to the Sur­geon General’s advi­so­ry, social media may boost the men­tal health of LGBTQ youth by:

  • fos­ter­ing con­nec­tions with peers;
  • facil­i­tat­ing iden­ti­ty devel­op­ment; and
  • enabling social support.

Ado­les­cence Is a Vul­ner­a­ble Phase of Development 

The mount­ing evi­dence regard­ing social media’s adverse effects on youth is espe­cial­ly con­cern­ing giv­en that ado­les­cence is a crit­i­cal peri­od of devel­op­ment, when dif­fer­ent areas of the brain begin to inte­grate and the pre­frontal cor­tex devel­ops at an accel­er­at­ed pace. 

In this phase of devel­op­ment, the ado­les­cent brain is espe­cial­ly open to learn­ing and grow­ing, and teens may have inten­si­fied sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the nature of social media, accord­ing to the Sur­geon General’s advisory. 

Ado­les­cence also involves pro­found phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes — young peo­ple are simul­ta­ne­ous­ly nav­i­gat­ing increas­ing auton­o­my, form­ing their iden­ti­ties, devel­op­ing rela­tion­ships and more. Giv­en these fac­tors, experts warn that social media use dur­ing this vul­ner­a­ble phase war­rants par­tic­u­lar attention.

Signs Social Media Use is Neg­a­tive­ly Impact­ing Your Teen

There is no set play­book to iden­ti­fy unhealthy social media use. Fac­tors to watch out for include social media use that leads a teen to: 

  • Miss out on real-world friend­ships and social­iza­tion opportunities.
  • Become high­ly self-crit­i­cal (often due to com­par­isons to false real­i­ties pre­sent­ed on social media).
  • Expe­ri­ence cyberbullying.
  • Feel increased lev­els of depres­sion, anx­i­ety, stress or isolation. 
  • Strug­gle to con­cen­trate at school or at work.
  • Fail to sleep sound­ly or get a good night’s rest.
  • Stop prac­tic­ing pos­i­tive self-care and self-reflection.

How to Pro­tect Teens on Social Media

While social media offers ben­e­fits for some, grow­ing evi­dence of its poten­tial harm to many chil­dren and youth has led the Sur­geon Gen­er­al to issue an urgent, cross-sec­tor call to action.

The Sur­geon Gen­er­al notes that pol­i­cy­mak­ers, tech com­pa­nies, researchers, fun­ders, fam­i­lies, advo­cates and oth­ers must work togeth­er on mul­ti-pronged strate­gies to cre­ate safe and healthy social media envi­ron­ments for young peo­ple. The call to action also includes tar­get­ed guid­ance for key groups.

For Pol­i­cy­mak­ers

The Sur­geon Gen­er­al advis­es pol­i­cy­mak­ers to take steps to strength­en pro­tec­tions for chil­dren inter­act­ing with all social media plat­forms. This advice involves: 

  • Devel­op­ing age-appro­pri­ate health and safe­ty standards.
  • Requir­ing a high­er stan­dard of data pri­va­cy for children.
  • Strength­en­ing and enforc­ing age minimums.

Addi­tion­al guid­ance to pol­i­cy­mak­ers includes:

  • Ensur­ing tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies share data rel­e­vant to the health effects of their platforms.
  • Sup­port­ing increased fund­ing for future research on both the ben­e­fits and harms of social media use and oth­er tech­nol­o­gy and dig­i­tal media use for chil­dren, ado­les­cents and families.

For Tech­nol­o­gy Companies

The Sur­geon Gen­er­al’s advice to tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies calls for:

  • Ade­quate­ly and inde­pen­dent­ly assess­ing the impact of social media on chil­dren and adolescents.
  • Pri­or­i­tiz­ing user health and safe­ty when design­ing and devel­op­ing social media prod­ucts and services.
  • For­mal­iz­ing a strat­e­gy for inves­ti­gat­ing the requests and com­plaints of young peo­ple, fam­i­lies, edu­ca­tors and others.

For Par­ents and Caregivers

Action items for par­ents and care­givers covers:

  • Cre­at­ing a fam­i­ly media plan with agreed-upon expec­ta­tions to estab­lish healthy social media bound­aries at home.
  • Cre­at­ing tech-free zones and encour­age in-per­son inter­ac­tions, which may involve lim­it­ing use of devices around bed­time and meal­times, pri­or­i­tiz­ing fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships and build­ing social bonds.
  • Mod­el­ing respon­si­ble social media behav­ior, as chil­dren often learn from what they see around them.

Learn More About Social Media and Teen Men­tal Health

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