The Social Challenge:
Today we live in a society where news and people travel fast. Humans can travel from one place to the next more quickly than ever before. Similarly, communication of all kinds, photographs, information, and videos are available to download and view at the touch of a button. But with convenience and ease of access, there is also negativity. The expedited nature of our current social media capabilities also brings about quick and easy access to adverse and negative imagery and information.
In today’s social media-heavy world, children and teens are linked to all corners of the globe like never before. Gone, likely forever, are the days where one needs to depend on the nightly news or the Sunday paper to learn about current events. While there are indeed a host of positive elements one can attribute to social media, there are likely equally as many negative aspects as well. These harmful elements can have a highly toxic impact on teens’ mental health and overall well-being.
Understanding Social Media
Before addressing how social media can have an adverse effect on teens’ anxiety and other mental health conditions, it is important to understand what social media is and where it came from. When people refer to social media, they are often referring to the collection of apps available on smartphones, iPads, and smart TVs used to communicate or share photos with family and friends. A significant portion of the population simply understands social media to be the collection of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram used by adults and teens across the nation every day. However, there is a bigger picture to social media. Social media is an Internet-based technology that facilitates sharing and exchanging ideas, thoughts, and information across multiple virtual networks and communities. Social media gives its users a means of instant electronic communication with people who are close by and those who are worlds apart. As smart technology advances, so does the availability of social media. Across the world, three billion people use social media in some form or another. Data provided by the Pew Research center indicates as many as 90% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 use at least one type of social media. Unfortunately, for legal reasons, data is not collected on social media users under the age of 18.
The Negatives of Getting Social
Today’s teenagers, and pretty much anyone born after 1995, are likely incapable of remembering life before the Internet. They don’t remember the value of the post office and cannot fathom the idea of a phone that didn’t fit in their back pocket. In today’s technologically dependent society, being connected via smartphones, apps, and social media outlets is a standard and frankly “normal” part of growing up for many adolescents and teens. As previously noted, there are positive elements to this. However, there is a noticeable and growing negative undercurrent running through society today, and that often weeps into the online environment where teens spend a great deal of time. Many adults and members of the medical community question how excessive social media use may ultimately harm the mental health of today’s teenagers. Unfortunately, current research is inconclusive at best. However, it is evident that social media has an important place in the lives of teens, and therefore, it is important to examine how social media use can impact their mental health.
Social Media and Mental Health
Many experts point to the coincidental rise of mental health struggles among teens with the first iPhone’s release approximately a decade ago. One study indicated that 48% of teens who spend at least five hours a day on an electronic device have at least one suicide risk factor as compared to 33% of teens who spend two hours a day on an electronic device. Many social media apps run on the premise of “follows” and “likes.” For some teens, this is perceived as concrete evidence that shows how much people like or do not like them, their thoughts, their appearance, or how they dress. This misguided reliance on the affirmation and approval from someone on the other end of a screen can lead to increased anxiety, low self-esteem, insecurity, and sadness from those who feel Leslie and or inferior to others they see posting on their favorite social media apps.
Viewing posts on social media can be triggering for some teens. For example, seeing people post about attending events to which one has not been invited or having someone post things about you that you cannot change or control can go a long way towards increasing anxiety. Also, feeling pressure to get comments and legs on your post or pressure to post positive and attractive content about yourself credit increased anxiety in someone who is not receiving as many likes and comments as they feel they should or someone who is shy and uncomfortable about posting.
Even more challenging for some teens is the inability to be online as much as they feel they need to. Social media places significant expectations on teens to be present, available, and responsive to friends and significant others. Many teens struggle with anxiety, fear, and stress related to the inability to react to and participate in conversations taking place between peers online. Also, the inability to actively communicate as much as necessary (or desired) with friends and significant others can produce feelings of anxiety.
Can Teens Become Addicted to Social Media?
Although not a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, social media addiction is a real challenge, many teens face. Research has shown that teen social media overuse and misuse can create stimulation patterns in the brain similar to those produced by other addictive behaviors. Consequently, the brain will begin to react to social media use in the same way it reacts to other “reward systems” associated with addictive behaviors-by releasing dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for feelings of pleasure and euphoria. A teen who struggles with a social media addiction will experience a dopamine rush when they post something online that is immediately responded to with reposts, shares, likes, or positive comments and accolades from their peers. Mental health professionals also point out that teen social media addiction is often the result of or co-occurs with other mental health conditions such as anxiety, chronic stress, and depression. Many teens find success when seeking treatment for social media addiction simultaneously with underlying mental health conditions in a teen-focused treatment program like Beachside.
Ways to Minimize the Effects of Social Media
Although there is limited definitive proof that social media causes anxiety or contributes to other mental health symptoms, there are plenty of warning signs. Also, there is a significant body of evidence that points to a correlation between social media and an increase in teens’ mental and emotional health issues. Consequently, it is wise for parents to check in with their teens regularly about their social media use to ensure it remains positive and healthy. There are a few steps you can take to help increase social media use without forcing your teen off of social media altogether. First, consider implementing phone-free time before bed. This can help reduce the chance of sleep deprivation and ensure “save surfing” limits are followed. Also, encourage mindfulness in your team. Encourage them to be honest about how social media use impacts them and teach them healthy ways to disengage from unhealthy or unsafe interactions.
Unfortunately, given the freedoms people have when it comes to posting online, your teen will likely be exposed to stressful or anxiety-producing material online. Helping them better understand how to avoid falling down the rabbit hole of negativity can reduce the chances of increased anxiety and other mental health struggles. Encourage your teen to turn off notifications on their smart devices, even if only for a few hours each day. This can help give them a window of time where they are blissfully unaware of who is posting and what they are posting about. It may also allow them the ability to focus on other activities over feeling as though they must instantly reply to or otherwise acknowledge their peers’ online content.
Residential, teen-focused treatment centers like Beachside can help your teen address the underlying mental and emotional health concerns they may face alongside a social media addiction. Mental health disorders such as anxiety, stress, depression, and physical concerns such as eating disorders and self-harming behavior can all be exacerbated by the added struggle of social media addiction. Treatment at Beachside can allow your teen time away from the screen. This vital offline time can help them learn how to develop and foster face-to-face relationships with like-minded peers in face to face, personalized setting. It can also provide them the opportunity to disconnect from the sometimes anxiety-producing obligations of the online world and address co-occurring mental health concerns they may be experiencing.
If you are concerned about how social media use may be impacting your teen’s mental health, reach out to Beachside today. Our caring and compassionate admissions team can help you learn more about warning signs that may indicate increasing anxiety in your teen. We can also help you learn more about how our treatment programs can help your teen disconnect from social media and reconnect with their family, peers, and lives in a meaningful, healthy, and valuable way. In a time where anxiety levels are increasing for people of all ages, look to Beachside to help your teen and family address the stress of social media use and overuse on the road to improved mental and emotional health.