Adolescents and teens are reporting alarming rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Sadly, we are seeing suicide as the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10-29. With 95% of adolescents owning smartphones and 45% saying they are online almost constantly, it’s understandable that parents will point to social media as a contributing factor to their teen’s struggles with depression and anxiety.
So is there really a link between social media and depression?
One study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology seemed to verify that belief. It said there was a causal link between social media and a teen’s mental well-being. Researchers focused not only on depression but also the loneliness that young people felt when they were spending too much time online.
However, that may not be totally accurate.
A new study from researchers at the University College London and Imperial College London reveals that social media – by itself – isn’t what causes depression or an increase in anxiety. After analyzing the data, researchers realized that although teens are using social media regularly, it’s other behaviors that are the real problem.
While online, some teens are being harassed and cyberbullied. Or, as they scroll down their feeds, they develop an attitude of “compare and despair,” which can diminish their self-worth. Social media is also causing some teens to lose sleep as well as not being physically active, which can also contribute to depression and moodiness.
What Do the Experts Say?
Katie Hurley, psychotherapist and author of the new Teen Depression Workbook for Teens, reviewed the latest research.
“With the near-constant media attention to the potential relationship between social media use among teens and depressed and/or anxious mood, it’s understandable that parents are concerned,” she tells Parentology. “It’s very important, however, to keep in mind that current studies show a correlation, not causation, and that we need further research into it.”
Hurley reminds parents, “It’s also crucial to remember that no two teens are the same, and all teens experience a range of stressors right now.”
Social networking has brought fulfillment to many people’s lives, particularly teens who have grown-up with online life and use it to have fun, connect and decompress. Reality is, in many ways it’s sometimes hard for them to separate their real-life from their digital one. They have formed friendships, social connections, and gotten help through online support groups.
“Some teens use social media to find other teens enduring similar struggles,” Hurley continues. “To simply prohibit social media use can be detrimental to teens in marginalized groups.”
Hurley points out that our relationship with social media and technology, in general, is the real problem. We all – teens and adults, alike – need to find a healthy balance between digital communication and face to face contact. Both play a role in the lives of teens right now.
Online Abuse on Teens
Too many teens have been suffering in silence when it comes to cyberbullying and online harassment. As a therapist, Hurley continues working with young people on a regular basis who have been victims of cyber-hate. She regularly tells parents they can’t ignore the fact that cyberbullying does occur among teens, and this can result in symptoms of anxiety and/or depression or low self-esteem.
To that end, it’s important that we engage in frequent, open, and honest communication with young people to explore how social media affects them and those around them, and what positive changes they can make to improve their relationships with their peers.
Developing digital resilience offline empowers your teen to be prepared for the ugly-side of social media as well as helping them find their healthy screen-time balance.
Link Between Social Media and Depression — Sources
PEW Fact Tank
World Health Organization
PEW Teens, Social Media and Technology
Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology report
Therapy Tribe Online Teen Support Groups
University College London, Dept of Education
Study on Teens Losing Sleep
Katie Hurley, LCSW