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How teens view social media’s impact on their mental health

Updated:2024-06-03 08:41    Views:77

A new report details the benefits and drawbacks young people see in social media, and how they manage both. A new report details the benefits and drawbacks young people see in social media, and how they manage both. Cavan Images/Getty Images

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988 to connect with a trained counselor, or visit the 988 Lifeline website.

CNN  — 

A new report details the role social media plays in the lives of young people, and how they manage the various pros and cons — including in the context of being a person of color or LGBTQ+, or having depression.

Those benefits and drawbacks include valuing online platforms for social connection, self-expression and information, while also feeling the brunt of social media’s effects on their attention span, confidence and contentedness, according to the report released Tuesday by Common Sense Media and Hopelab, a social innovation lab and impact investor aiming to support the well-being of young people.

READ MORE: How to know if you have ‘phone addiction’ — and 12 ways to address it

“Most conversations and headlines surrounding social media and youth mental (health) focus solely on the harms, portraying young people as passive consumers. This research shows that it’s much more complex,” said Amy Green, head of research at Hopelab, in a news release. “If we truly want to improve the well-being of young people, we need to listen to their experiences and ensure that we do not inadvertently remove access to crucial positive benefits.”

Also driving the research is the national youth mental health crisis, the authors said, marked by increasing rates of mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts, and antidepressant medications prescribed to youth. In conversations about these phenomena, social media has consistently been at the center, though mental health issues can have multiple contributing factors. 

A young woman sitting on her sofa while smiling and texting on her mobile phone. Stock photo A young woman sitting on her sofa while smiling and texting on her mobile phone. Stock photo Delmaine Donson/E+/Getty Images

Conducted by the NORC — previously called the National Opinion Research Center — at the University of Chicago, the research includes 1,274 teens (ages 14 to 17) and young adults (ages 18 to 22) recruited online between October and November 2023. The young people “provided direction and input regarding survey content” and participated in focus groups and interviews to help the research team prioritize and interpret results, according to a news release. The report is the third in a series tracking the influence of social media on well-being among youth.    

The researchers found the rate of depressive symptoms among youth is about 10% down from pandemic highs but is still high and comparable to the elevated levels of 2018. Nearly half of young people reported experiencing any severity of depression, and nearly a third (28%) said they had moderate to severe symptoms.

Additionally, about half of LGBTQ+ youth reported moderate to severe symptoms of depression, compared to nearly one-quarter of their non-LGBTQ+ peers.

Those with depression were more susceptible to social comparison and pressure to show their best selves on social media. But they were also more likely to find resources to support their well-being and curate their feeds for this purpose — done by selecting a “not interested” button on content they don’t like, flagging inappropriate or offensive content, or blocking someone whose content bothered them. These youth also positively curated feeds by “liking” and spending more time on content they did enjoy, since many social media algorithms work by giving you more content based on your level of engagement with certain topics.

This was especially important for LGBTQ+ youth who, along with Black and Latinx young people, faced more exposure to harassment and stress online.

frustrated employee STOCK Prostock-studio/Adobe Stock

“In focus groups, Black youth told us their experiences with in-person harassment lowered their tolerance for similar behavior on social media, and meant they were more willing to give up the benefits to protect themselves from hateful comments,” said lead researcher Amanda Lenhart, head of research at Common Sense Media, via email.

The findings confirm what many researchers have seen scientifically and anecdotally, said Dr. Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association, via email. Prinstein wasn’t involved in the study.

Social media and mental health

Many participants also revealed the positives they gain from social media, citing online platforms as a place to seek support and advice; decompress; connect with loved ones and others who share their experiences, interests or identities; stay informed; and keep up with their favorite influencers or content creators.

“Another important finding is the importance of social media as a space of connection, creativity and professional opportunities for Black youth,” Lenhart said.

Dr. Douglas Gentile, distinguished professor of psychology at Iowa State University, encouraged being “careful about interpreting (self-reported) data like these,” he said via email.

Indian women holding hands. Indian women holding hands. Emily Stein/Digital Vision/Getty Images

“People are surprisingly bad at actually knowing what the effects of media use are on themselves,” Gentile, who wasn’t involved in the research, added. “I don’t mean to say that anyone is lying. Just that we only see little pieces of how the media influence us.”

Nearly one-fourth of participants reported using social media almost constantly throughout the day, up 7% from the rate the authors found in their 2018 report, the authors found. Many young people reported an inability to control their use, social media distracting from other activities and unconsciously reaching for social media when bored. To counteract these behaviors, on top of customizing their feeds, many have also taken breaks from social media to avoid the temptation or deleted their accounts permanently.

“Social media could offer (more) benefits to youth if it was designed with a primary focus on youth well-being rather than a focus on keeping kids engaged for as long as possible to make a profit from their data,” Prinstein said.

While, or after, using social media, try doing an emotional check-in, Lenhart said. “Ask yourself, ‘How am I feeling right now? Did I see anything that made me feel sad?’”

Taking a temporary or permanent break from the content causing the most distress could be helpful, Lenhart added, especially if you already struggle with depression.

If you’re a parent or guardian wondering how to best manage your teen’s social media use, one of the most important things you can do is “keep communication channels open,” Lenhart said.

GettyImages-1097975504.jpg Rouzes/iStockphoto/Getty Images

Parental involvement is important, as young adults have expressed regret that their parents allowed them to use social media so young, wishing they could go back and tell their parents to not give in to their demands, Prinstein said.

Ask the teens in your life what they like about these platforms and what types of connections or activities support their mental health, Lenhart said. Let them know you’re there to help figure out a solution if social media is upsetting them or interfering with other responsibilities.

Respect “that each young person is an expert in their own lived experience,” Lenhart said. “Young people are valuable teachers in their own right.”



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