Thrive on Campus//

The Real Impact of Social Media on Teens’ Mental Health

Excessive digital media use is taking a toll on adolescent development — but setting screen-time limits can make a positive difference.

PROKOPEVA IRINA / Shutterstock
PROKOPEVA IRINA / Shutterstock

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

Social media use has skyrocketed among adolescents in recent years. For example, in 2016, the average American adolescent spent twice as much time online as the average adolescent in 2006 (Twenge, Martin, & Spitzberg, 2018). These trends have potential implications for adolescent health, which led me to the field of adolescent mental health, generally — and to social media use, specifically.

Adolescents face many threats to healthy development, including bullying, substance use, violence, insufficient sleep, and poor diet. Many studies have found a cross-sectional association between social media use and adolescent mental health, and I was not surprised to see the same in our study

Our findings suggest that social media use, and digital media use more broadly, may also negatively influence adolescent development if engaged in excessively. What was surprising to me, but also sobering and demoralizing, was that this association held up even after controlling for prior mental health — this adds to the mounting evidence of a true connection between social media use and mental health.

In our analyses for how hypothetical reductions in social media use might influence mental health, I was surprised by how much mental health problems might be reduced under certain conditions — up to 9.4% for internalizing problems (i.e. anxious-depressive behavior) if adolescents who used more than 30 minutes of social media per day instead used 30 minutes or less.

Parents who are concerned about their teenagers’ social media use may consider implementing a Family Media Use Plan, developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. This allows families to develop guidelines around screen-free zones in the household, screen-free times (such as spending time with family or meal times), and device curfews (where devices need to be turned off after a certain time).

For anyone who is concerned about their own social media use, there are numerous apps available for phones that allow you to regulate your time spent on social media.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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