Social Media: How is it impacting our youth?

More than a few parents and teachers have been arguing for years that there must be a correlation between social media and adolescent mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. They have also been blaming screen time, and social media in particular, for the fact that young people seem to be maturing more slowly than previous generations. They draw this conclusion because Generation Z (the so-called “digital natives” born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s who have never known a world without a computer) seem paralyzed when it comes to making even minor life decision. They have also demonstrated a collective reluctance to leave the family home to live on their own. This has prompted some observers to say things like, “Twenty-eight is the new eighteen” – a backhanded dig at Generation Z and their immaturity. 

But is it fair to simply point the finger at social media and say the Facebooks and Instagrams of the world are to blame for teen mental health problems and immaturity?

They’re all on social media

To start off with, let’s be perfectly clear: Social media use is incredibly common, with 96% of Canadian youth aged 16-24 connecting to these platforms on a daily basis. Of that number, close to a quarter are checking their smartphones almost constantly, with variations of check-in frequencies raging from there. It is no wonder that parents and teachers see social media as playing a major role in generating or promoting negative thoughts and feelings among youth. Combine this with the dark side of these sites, cyberbullying and cyberstalking (of which 15% of Canadian youth say they’ve experienced over the last year), and you can see why the adults are worried.

No definitive link

But here’s the truth: the jury is still out on the topic. Several studies claim social media can have a negative effect on an adolescent’s mental health while others say there is no direct correlation. In terms of teen maturity, some brain studies hypothesize that social media may have negative effects on brain development but, overall, the topic needs much more study. Since, statistically speaking, one in five Canadian youth will develop a mental illness in their lifetime (with or without social media!), finding a definitive link between social media and youth mental illness and maturity has proven elusive.

Some alarming developments

One thing is shockingly evident: more young people are experiencing mental health challenges than ever before. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry released a report in the late spring of 2019 that laid out some alarming developments when it comes to youth mental health. The study looked at hospital visits in Ontario Emergency Rooms (ERs) from 2003 to 2017. They noticed a few trends:

  • From 2003 to 2009, youth self-harm (deliberate attempts to injure oneself, e.g. cutting) visits to the ER dropped by over 30%. In the same time period, youth mental health visits rose by 15%.
  • From 2009 to 2017, these numbers changed dramatically. Self-harm visits to the ER shot up by 135%, while youth mental health visits continued their climb, up another 63% from 2009.

Clearly something was not right in the world of teen mental health. Study author William Gardner of the University of Ottawa said that the reasons for the changing numbers were unclear but, at a glance, he posited that rising use of smartphones and social media were at least partly to blame. He also suggested that family financial struggles related to the economic downturn of 2008 and increased willingness to self-report mental health struggles by youth contributed to the rising numbers. Whatever the reason, the numbers were pointing to a growing teen mental health crisis.

The Teen Brain

So how do you explain the upsurge in ER visits? Could it have to do with teen brain development? A Nature article on adolescent brain development looked at media (including social media) and potential adverse effects on youth. They wondered: since teens are highly susceptible to the opinions of their peers (craving acceptance and terrified of rejection), did social media consumption alter or hinder brain development? The study was able to demonstrate the effects of things like acceptance and rejection on the adolescent brain through MRI technology but it wasn’t able to say that social media necessarily delayed maturity. In fact, the study’s authors concluded their report by saying, “A critical question that remains largely unanswered is how adolescents’ abundant media use may impact them developmentally in terms of structural brain development, functional brain development, and related behaviour.” In the end, they conclude that moderate use of social media, and consumption of media overall, is “not intrinsically harmful.” Nonetheless, they warn that, since the adolescent brain is still developing until the age of roughly 25, teens are likely more prone to intense emotional reactions that are sometimes aroused by Instagram photos and Facebook posts.

Social media is to blame

Researchers have also focused on the effects of social media on the emotional lives of youth. A JAMA Pediatrics study received a lot of attention in 2019. Researchers in Montreal conducted a study of close to 4,000 youth between the ages of 12 and 16. Their focus: screen time. They wanted to know if a teen’s television, social media, gaming and computer use could be linked to their sense of mental well-being. They noticed an increase in the symptoms of anxiety, depression and loneliness the more time a teen spent on social media and watching television. They claimed that three hours a day of social media or passive television viewing marked the tipping point toward more negative feelings. They were surprised to note that playing video games for extended periods of time did not yield similar results (possibly because gaming has become a very social activity).  

San Diego State University’s Jean Twenge wouldn’t have been surprised by these findings. Known for her forthright commentary on parenting and adolescent development, Twenge floated the idea that smartphones and, by extension, social media were creating problems around the time that smartphone ownership got in the hands of the majority of North Americans in 2012. Twenge noted that, between 2010 and 2015, U.S. teens reported increasing feelings of hopelessness, with depression rising by 33% and teen suicide attempts rising by 23%. Tragically, in the same time period, the suicide rate among 13 to 18 year olds jumped by 31%. According to Twenge: All signs point to the screen. Her data suggested that young people who spend five or more hours a day online were 71% more likely to experience the symptoms of depression. In short, online time was taking these young people away from activities and interactions that would be beneficial to their mental health. That said, Twenge did admit that other mitigating factors – family dynamics, trauma and a predisposition to mental illness – were also major contributors to a teen’s mental wellness.

Social media is not to blame

Some scholars are challenging the finding of Twenge and JAMA. They feel that the researchers – wittingly or not – are skewing the results to achieve the outcome they wish to see. In a study published in Nature, Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski used data from 350,000 teen surveys and determined that there are over 60,000 ways to interpret the relationship between technology and teen mental health.  While an overall analysis does point to a negative impact of heavy technology use and mental well-being, the overall impact is miniscule – a mere 0.4%. Orben and Przbylski point out that eating potatoes has a similar negative affect on a teen’s mental health. Orben says, “This study isn’t saying that potatoes cause teens to feel bad – just as it’s not saying that using social media causes them to feel bad.” She says many other factors must play a role in an adolescent’s mental health profile. This premise is supported by a Lancet study that concluded that smartphone use late into the night is affecting teen sleeping habits. This is leading to a lack of sleep and, in turn, a change in mood for many teens. Missing the sleep they desperately need, concludes the Lancet study, is the problem – not the smartphone.

Some observers feel that studies like Orben and Pzybylski’s may be suggesting another possibility: that teens with mental health challenges may be drawn to social media. Their actual reason for doing this may be to find a sense of comfort and belonging but the outcome may be increased anxiety, depression and loneliness due to things like cyberbullying or disturbing content. In time, teens may begin leaning on social media for acceptance and a sense of community – something that is only truly achieved by face-to-face interactions.

So who’s right!?!

So who is right? Is social media delaying brain development and causing adolescents to mature later than their predecessors? Are the researchers at JAMA Pediatrics right when they say depressed teens are spending too much time on Facebook (which is only making them more depressed)? Is Jean Twenge right in suggesting we live in a world where Instagram posts are leading teens into depressive and sometimes suicidal states? Are Amy Orben and Andrew Przbylski right when they say social media is no more hazardous to youth mental health than potatoes? Perhaps the answer is: they are all right. The abundance of social media, and the massive amount of information in general, may be delaying maturity in youth because there is simply too much to process in such a short period of time. In other words, adolescents are maturing as fast as they can based on the world they live in. In terms of growing trends of anxiety, depression and loneliness among some teens, certainly social media is fertile ground to see how great other peoples’ lives are compared to one’s own situation. There are always going to be people who are happier, better looking and smarter on the idealized platform of social media. However, social media does bring with it a myriad of positives (connection, community, friendship) that are beneficial to most people. While some teens suffer, and social media is contributing to that suffering, there are likely other factors that are drawing them into mental illness. These factors could include family issues, traumatic events and a genetic, familial link to mental illness. If all of the research is taken together, the conclusions seem to point to examining the whole life of the young person before simply pointing the finger exclusively at something like social media. In the end, parents and teachers would do well to help students thoughtfully examine their social media use and introspectively determine whether or not these platforms are having a negative effect on their sense of well-being. 

A brief history of social media and corresponding youth mental health trends

By: Sean Dolan

Boers, Elroy, Mohammad H. Afzali, Nicola Newton and Patricia Conrad. (July 2019). “Association of screen time and depression in adolescence.” JAMA Pediatrics. Retrieved from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/2737909?resultClick=1.
Crone, Eveline A. and Elly A. Konijn. (Feb. 2018). “Media use and brain development in adolescence.” Nature Communications. Retrieved from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-03126-x.
Gardner, William, Kathleen Pajer and Paula Cloutier. (June 2019). “Changing rates of self-harm and mental disorders by sex in youths presenting to Ontario Emergency Departments: Repeated cross-sectional study.” Retrieved from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0706743719854070.
Orben, Amy and Andrew K. Przybylski. (Jan. 2019). “The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use.” Nature Human Behavior. Retrieved from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-018-0506-1 AND https://www.amyorben.com/pdf/2019_orbenprzybylski_nhb.pdf.
Twenge, Jean. (Nov. 2017). “With teen health deteriorating over five years, there’s a likely culprit.” The Conversation. Retrieved from: http://theconversation.com/with-teen-mental-health-deteriorating-over-five-years-theres-a-likely-culprit-86996.
Zafar, Amina. (June 2019). “‘New 18 now is 28’: How screens delay teens’ emotional maturity.” CBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/teen-self-harm-emotional-maturity-1.5174104.

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