U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on social media’s impact on children and adolescents’ mental health. Certainly, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Discord, and other similar platforms can overwhelm anyone psychologically. However, using these platforms cannot be the only focus when discussing the causes of today’s mental health decline. Mental well-being includes genetics, family history, environment, and social, psychological, and emotional states, which must be considered.
Dr. Murthy’s 25-page assessment discusses social media’s negative and positive effects on an adolescent’s brain development between ages 10 and 19. “This is a period when risk-taking behaviors reach their peak [and] when well-being experiences the greatest fluctuations.”
It is also “when mental health challenges such as depression typically emerge.” Additionally, when identities and their sense of self-worth form in early adolescence, brain development is quite sensitive to social pressures, peer opinions, and peer comparison; furthermore, girls 11-13 years old and boys 14-15 years old may encounter increased emotional sensitivity during their social media experience.
As a result of this vulnerable time of brain development, the amount of time spent on social media matters. For example, a long-term cohort study of 6,595 U.S. youth aged 12 to 15 found that those who spend more than three hours daily encountered double the risk of poor mental health outcomes.
Another small randomized controlled study found that limiting social media benefited college-aged adults and adults. Participants limited their time to 30 minutes for three weeks, significantly improving depression severity. “This effect was particularly large for those with baseline levels of depression which saw an improvement in depression scores by more than 35%.”
Social Media Helps Some Adolescents
It is not all bad news regarding adolescents and social media. In fact, some users can actually be beneficial by providing a positive community and connection with others. Socializing with those who share identities, abilities, and interests helps youth form and maintain online friendships. These friendships can have a positive effect on mental health. Moreover, the relationships can be buffers against stress which is especially important for marginalized groups such those racial, ethnic, and LGBTQ+ youth.
Fifty-eight percent of adolescents say social media helps them feel more accepted, and 67% feel as though they have people who can support them through bad times. Others say that Facebook, Discord, TikTok, Instagram, and other platforms allow them to be creative or feel more connected to their friends’ lives.
Finally, research suggests that social media-based or other digitally-based mental health interventions may also be helpful for some users by encouraging help-seeking behaviors as a gateway to starting mental health care.
Written by Cathy Milne-Ware
Northern Healthcare: What factors affect our mental health? Understanding the social, physiological, and environmental impact; by Rebecca Gibson
DHHS: Social Media and Youth Mental Health (pdf)
We Are Restless: Know the benefits of Online friendships; by Dalilah Anna