Social media and mental health

No industry changes faster than technology, and that can sometimes be a scary thing. From mobile phones to social media, society acts as guinea pigs for the latest advancements. We typically don’t understand the personal and social ramifications technologies have until about two decades after their introduction. And that’s about where we are with social media.

The first social media website launched in 1997 and we’ve been hooked ever since. But to this date, we’ve seen relatively few studies on the subject. And we must also address that the ever-evolving atmosphere of social media poses another challenge for scientific conclusions.

At this point, we can rely on the studies that have been done alongside some educated guesses on whether social media may be to blame for the worsening mental health of teenagers.

Mental health trends for teenagers

A 2016 Pediatrics study of adolescent depression trends found a drastic increase in major depressive episodes (MDEs) among teenagers and young adults since 2005. Researchers studied national depression trends and found that 37 percent more teens reported MDEs in 2014 than nearly a decade ago.

Symptoms of an MDE include low-self-esteem, sleep problems, low energy, poor concentration and loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities.

Suicide rates among teens are also climbing at an alarming rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the suicide rate for girls aged 15 to 19 doubled from 2007 to 2015. Suicide rates for boys increased by 30 percent in the same time period.

Social media trends for teenagers

According to Pew Research, 71 percent of teens reported using more than one social media site in 2016 with more than 90 percent of young adults on at least one social media site. This is a major leap from 2005 when only 12 percent of young adults were on social media.

We can clearly see a correlation between social media use and depression rates, but this does not necessarily mean that one has caused the other. To get to the bottom of that question, we must dig deeper.

Social media and mental health

At least one study tells us that social media likely plays a role in the worsening mental health of teenagers.

A 2016 Computers in Human Behavior study tells us that young adults who spend time on multiple social media sites are more likely to experience depression than their counterparts who spend the same time on other types of websites.

Those who reported using seven or more social media platforms were over three times more likely to develop depression or anxiety than those who used up to 2 platforms.

Yet another study found no correlation between social media use and clinical depression in older adolescents.

Does social media cause depression?

Ultimately, we must trust our instincts. With various social media platforms, posts and communities, it’s difficult to make any sweeping statements. Surely, we’ve all heard about cases where social media contributed to someone’s depression. Maybe this is even your personal story.

There are many ways social media can cause or trigger major depressive episodes. The following are a few common examples:

  • Cyberbullying – When a child is being cyberbullied, there’s almost no escape. This form of bullying can have an impact on the teen’s social life and self-esteem. If it continues, depression from bullying can lead to substance abuse or worse.  
  • Comparisons – When you look at a peer’s social media account, it’s easy to imagine a perfect life. We all tend to share the best parts of ourselves online. But comparing a real person with an online persona can be extremely dangerous, especially for an impressionable teen. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and despair.
  • Normalizing risky behaviour – A teen who is struggling with mental health issues may easily find bad influences through social media. You won’t have to spend much time searching to find groups who glorify things like drugs, eating disorders and suicide.

The bottom line

For every negative experience online, you may find an equally positive one. Social media can be dangerous, and it can be wonderful. It truly depends on your exposure, which isn’t always something in the user’s control. For example, in the case of cyberbullying, the user has little control.

Social media isn’t inherently bad or good, but it’s up to you to figure out how it’s making you feel. If you feel like you’re struggling with a mental health issue, it may be time to take a social media break. Otherwise, pay close attention to your online influences to ensure they are positive and uplifting.

Article written by Trevor McDonald