The launch of Apple’s first iPhone in 2007 was a technology game changer. By 2012, a majority of Americans owned a smartphone, and by 2015 two-thirds of teenagers did as well. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), the proportion of US adolescents who have a smartphone is estimated to be 89%, a number that doubled over a 6-year period from 2012 to 2018. NIH also reports that 70% of teenagers use social media multiple times per day, which is up from 30% in 2012.
In her widely discussed 2017 book, iGen, research psychologist Dr. Jean Twenge argued that the sharp decline in teen mental health coincided with the dawn of ubiquitous smartphone and social media usage among young people, in particular among Gen Z individuals born between 1997 and 2012. Gen Z is the first generation to spend their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone, and Twenge argued that technology usage combined with other societal factors have shaped a generation that is more prone to anxiety, depression, loneliness, and social difficulties.
While some researchers took issue with Dr. Twenge’s conclusions, her book and other publications nonetheless sparked a conversation about technology and teen mental health that continues to this day. On May 23rd of this year the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, issued a public health advisory warning of the risks of social media usage among young people. Earlier in the month, the American Psychological Association (APA) had issued its first-ever recommendations for educators, policymakers, tech companies, and parents to help them facilitate safe and positive ways for teens to engage with technology.
Despite considerable handwringing about the fate of technology-obsessed young people, it is important to recognize that the picture is more nuanced. Yes, there are risks, but there is also considerable evidence that there are many positive aspects to social media usage, and that it is possible to help teens learn how to maximize its benefits while optimizing safety and managing its risks.
Who is using it and what do we know about the positive effects of social media?
The McKinsey Health Institute (MHI) conducted a Global Gen Z Survey in 2022 that asked more than 42,000 respondents in 26 countries questions related to the four dimensions of health: mental, physical, social, and spiritual. Similarities and differences across generations were then analyzed in order to better understand the issues related to Gen Z mental health.
Compared with other generations, Gen Zers, on average, are more likely to cite negative feelings about social media engagement and are also more likely to report having poor mental health. At the same time, they report that social media helps with finding both mental health support and connectivity, and they are more likely to use digital wellness apps and mental health programs. Interestingly, older generations do not necessarily engage less with social media platforms than Gen Zers, and while the negative effects of social media were reported across all age cohorts, positive effects were even more commonly reported. Fifty percent of all groups cited self-expression and social connectivity as examples of the positives.
Of all respondents worldwide, 35% of Gen Zers reported social media usage greater than 2 hours per day, while 24% of Millennials, 17% of Gen Xers, and 14% of Baby Boomers reported that extent of usage. Ten minutes to 1 hour per day of engagement was reported by 36% of Gen Zers, while 47% of Millennials, 49% of Gen Xers, and 48% of Boomers reported that level of use. These findings, along with data from other research, suggest that the amount of time spent on social media per day is not the most significant factor, but rather it is the nature of an individual’s relationship with social media that determines both positive and negative outcomes.
The risks of social media
The risks associated with social media usage have been well documented. These include:
- Increased anxiety and depression
- Exposure to misinformation
- Exposure to harmful or inappropriate content, including sites that promote eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse, suicidal behaviors, sexual content that is not age-appropriate, and hate speech
- Challenges to young people to engage in risky behaviors
- Exposure to cyberbullying
- Vulnerability to predators with harmful physical, psychological, financial, or sexual intentions
- Privacy concerns: social media posts can have far reaching effects on one’s reputation and ability to protect personal information for years to come
- Time drained from other important life activities such as sleep, socializing in person, getting physical exercise, studying, etc.
- And, with the increase in AI (Artificial Intelligence) applications, there is an increased risk that one’s voice, image, and personal information can be stolen and used for nefarious purposes.
These risks are mediated by issues that are not uncommon in developing adolescents: poor self-esteem and body image; the natural inclination to want to belong and be accepted; the tendency to experiment and to look to others to define how they should look, think, act, and feel; the fear of missing out (FOMO); and the tendency to compare oneself to others with respect to happiness, appearance, popularity, etc. The pandemic also played a role in defining relationships to technology as many young people were isolated and lonely during the various stages of school closures and had to rely on various online platforms to continue their education and to stay connected with friends and family. And, of course, the risks listed above are exacerbated for those individuals with already existing vulnerability to mental health problems based on biology, trauma history, and/or family/community circumstances.
The positive effects of social media
Despite the risks, Gen Zers and other cohorts consistently report many positive outcomes from their engagement with social media. These positive effects include:
- The ability to stay connected with friends and family, a factor that was a lifesaver for many during pandemic related closures and quarantine periods
- A readily available outlet for offering and seeking support when anxious, sad, or, lonely
- The opportunity to interact with a more diverse group of individuals than they might be exposed to within their own schools or neighborhoods
- The ability to stay connected with teachers, coaches, fellow students, counselors, etc. that goes beyond in-person time and activities
- Access to many platforms within which to explore ideas and to develop creativity of all kinds: artistic, scientific, technological, etc.
- The ability to practice and develop proficiencies in the technological realm that can have far-reaching occupational advantages for their futures
- The ability to create or get involved in charitable campaigns or to raise awareness about important issues ranging from climate change and autism awareness to issues of concern in their local communities
- The opportunity to interact with others who have similar interests and/or hobbies
- Access to health information and to health-related apps that can help them learn ways to manage anxiety and depression, to improve communication and social skills, to improve self-regulation capacities, etc. Fifty percent more Gen Z respondents in the MHI survey reported using digital mental health programs when compared with Gen X and Boomers.
- Access to a global forum to increase awareness of current events, cultural differences, and varying values and priorities that hopefully can foster greater tolerance and less hate
- Access to information and support from other individuals who are marginalized and/or who feel unsafe within their own communities (e.g. racial/ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ students); social media offers a means for more authentic self-presentation, for less hiding of the true self
- Finally, one significant positive impact of technology on mental health in the US has been the creation of the new and easy-to-remember 988 number for calling or texting the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
It is also important to consider that digital mental health support systems can play a critical role as mental health extenders given the current shortage of mental health providers and limitations on accessibility due to geographic or other reasons. Some individuals who are reluctant to meet with a provider in person might prefer a computerized process for completing an evaluation, assessing risk, and learning skills to improve mental health. Forward thinking mental health providers are already working to incorporate digital systems into their treatment offerings to enhance both compliance and outcomes.
Schools and parents can help teens develop a healthy relationship with social media
A recent Harvard study found that routine social media use (e.g., using social media daily, responding to content posted by others, etc.) is positively associated with the three health-related outcomes that they measured (social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health). On the other hand, an “emotional connection to social media”, (e.g., excessive checking of apps for fear of missing out, or feeling bored or disconnected when not logged on to social media) is negatively associated with all three health outcomes. Based on their findings the researchers conclude that routine use is not likely a problem in and of itself, and in fact can be beneficial, especially for young people. They recommend that adults proactively help youngsters become “mindful users” of social media, and that behavioral interventions be used to develop “effortful control” skills (i.e., self-regulation skills) for those youngsters who have already developed an unhealthy relationship with social media.
Various publications, including the APA and Surgeon General reports, have offered suggestions for how parents and schools can foster healthy social media use. Adults can teach children to:
- Define and adhere to a clear set of boundaries that address both times of day and places/contexts for engagement with social media. For example: Choose specific times of day to scroll apps like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. Delete certain apps on your phone so that you can only log on with a tablet or computer – this will automatically limit usage. Define “device-free” zones, such as the dinner table, or when walking/exercising. Shut down all devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime and keep phones and computers out of the bedroom after that time so that sleep is not disturbed by alerts and notifications. Use an alarm clock so that you do not have to depend on your phone as an alarm.
- Create regular “detox” periods that allow for extended breaks from social media for hours or days at a time. Notify friends and family so that they are aware of and can support your intentions. Plan other self-care activities for detox periods: exercise, journaling, meditation, a bubble bath, etc.
- Keep a chart that tracks how you feel during and after social media engagement. Notice time spent, what apps were used, and specify and rate feelings on a scale of 1-10. This data collection process will help students learn what types of social media use can be triggering and/or worsen mental health status.
- Set intentions for social media use and practice how to mindfully stay focused on those goals (e.g., to check the news; to do research for school projects; to find out what social activities friends are planning; to see what friends are up to and to comment/support them; to follow favorite artists; to post a Tik Tok video or other artistic creation, etc.).
- Prune social media accounts to the few most frequently used and that are the most enjoyable and least likely to trigger harmful thoughts/emotions. Seek sites that foster joy and other positive emotions and unfollow/unfriend people and sites that spew judgment and negativity and thus contribute to poor self-esteem or negative self-comparisons.
- Regularly plan time to connect in person with chosen friends and family members to foster positive emotions via shared activities and to practice communication, social, and self-regulation skills.
Parents and educators must actively teach youngsters social media literacy from early on in their academic lives. Parents must educate themselves about social media so that they can monitor and regulate their teen’s accounts. Schools should consider expanding the current instructional modules for students and offer workshops for parents who may feel ill-equipped to help their children with technologies they don’t use or fully understand. Above all, both educators and parents must be positive role-models, setting and adhering to boundaries for their own technology use as well.
Some final notes for parents
Parents understandably can feel overwhelmed with what it takes these days to keep their kids safe. At the same time, teaching internet safety is every bit as important as teaching a child how to cross the street or how to react if approached by a stranger. Some tips to consider:
- Regularly — at least weekly — monitor your child’s social media and internet usage.
- Talk with your children about social media pros and cons on a regular basis. Ask them how social media makes them feel and remind them that social media is full of unrealistic images and inaccurate or distorted information.
- Describe appropriate online behavior, explaining that gossiping, spreading rumors, bullying, or damaging someone’s reputation is never OK. Likewise, encourage your children to tell you immediately if someone is treating them badly online.
- Teach your children about privacy settings and encourage discussions about what is appropriate and safe to share on social media. Emphasize that it is never a good idea to friend strangers. According to a study by the Pew Research Center almost 2/3 of 12–17-year-old Facebook users have set their profiles to private. Although one might argue that 100% would be better, this means that many teens are aware of and take measures to increase their online security.
- Encourage your children to play the “how might this affect my future self” game: Am I putting information out there that I wouldn’t want my parents, friends, other family members, college admissions officers, future bosses, etc. to see?
- Help your children practice how to take a breath before hitting enter — to take time to consider the impact of their messages, posts, etc.
- And, as mentioned above, consider your own relationship with your phone and other devices. Develop family policies and practices and support each other with efforts to be in control of social media rather than letting social media control you.