Is social media dangerous for teens?

The rate of depression among adolescents is significantly higher than the rate for adults. At the same time, teens are using social media more than ever.

Credit: Creative Commons
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The turn of the 21st century marked a period in which social media use created a new culture emphasizing inclusion and shared identity.

Nearly a decade after the introduction of social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram, teenagers are learning how to interact with the world through the bright screens of their electronic devices.

This alternative method of learning and discovery of self-identity could pose a threat to the mental health of children and adolescents, experts say.

Almost eight in 10 parents say their teens, between 13 and 17 years old, use social media. At the same time, about 20 percent of teens experience depression before reaching adulthood, according to I Need a Lighthouse, an organization that raises awareness about teen depression.

Psychology professor Nicole Caporino says some teens show a preference for online interaction because they can control self-presentation more than face-to-face interaction. Credit: Creative Commons

Some experts believe social media plays a significant role in harming teenagers’ mental health. Larry Cohen, a social worker, said he recognizes both the positive and negative effects of social media. Cohen specializes in helping clients who experience social anxiety.  

Social media can help people who are socially isolated connect with people but it can also create an over reliance on online affirmation, Cohen said. 

“I see the negative side more,” Cohen said. He emphasized the harmful effects of social media sites that utilize “likes,” such as Instagram and Facebook.

“For many people, it can be yet another place where people feel socially anxious,” Cohen said. “For some people, it’s actually harder to be on social media because, in person, everything you say is essentially erased, whereas what you put on social media is there forever.”

He added, “People are concerned with how people will react.”

Statistic: Most popular social networks of teenagers in the United States from Fall 2012 to Spring 2017 | Statista
Teenagers use Snapchat and Instagram the most. Source: Statista

Depressive episodes increased from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 11.3 percent in 2014 for adolescents, according to a 2016 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The numbers are concerning to Nicole Caporino, an assistant professor of psychology at American University.

“People who have depression tend to compare themselves to others. They are managing their impression to some extent,” she said. 

Adolescents who are depressed may be prone to think that others are doing better than them, or that others are more attractive than they are. Those thoughts can lead to body image issues which, Caporino said, affects girls significantly more than boys.

Caporino’s observations are supported by a recent study from the American Psychological Association. The group found that parents of teen girls are more likely to report that they worry about the influence of social media on their child’s physical and mental health.

Statistic: Attempted suicide among U.S. high school students between 2008 and 2012, by demographic characteristic* | Statista
Two percent of female high school students attempted suicide in 2011. Source: Statista

Parent Intervention

Some parents may find it difficult to relate to their children who may use social media to cope with feelings of isolation and loneliness, primarily because many of them did not grow up in the world of advanced technology. 

Caporino listed a few approaches parents can use to help veer their depressed or socially anxious teen away from digital screens, based on suggestions of other psychologists:

     • Parents should know the teen’s passwords and check social media accounts spontaneously

     • Decide what age the adolescent should start using social media

     • Consider privacy settings

     • Have a family-central charging station, where everyone in the family charges their phones

     • Keep computers in a common area

     • Watch the teen’s digital footprint — they may not realize the long-lasting consequences of something they post online

Caporino recommended that parents have frequent conversations with their children to help make sense of the messages they may send and receive. 

“Parents should treat their child’s online environment as an extension of their behavior offline,” she said.

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