Whether we like it or not, technology is an ever present force in an adolescent’s life. Probably accompanying this technology is involvement in social media. Social media is used for a variety of reasons, from reconnecting with old friends, finding new friends, sharing information, or receiving feedback. For teenagers and young adults in particular, social media may also be used for identity development as well as self-esteem and self-worth measurements. For those of us who grew up in the pre-social media era, the importance of clicks and likes may be baffling. Yet the impact and presence of social media is undeniable, and it is worth exploring how social media may be impacting young people.
It seems obvious that social media is used for social comparison. Teenagers have perfected the lighting, angle, and expression that can mean a selfie worthy of likes. A recent study in the UK found that there was a small but still significant link between social comparison and depressive symptoms. While objectively we know that only the ideal and best parts of ourselves are shown on social media, the experience and feeling of looking at social media, and feeling like we don’t measure up can increase our negative thoughts, and increase symptoms of depression. Additionally, social media use is correlated with problematic eating behaviors, contributing to potential eating disorders. While it is unknown at this time if the association is causal, it is worth monitoring, particularly as we already know the role that images and general media can have on eating behaviors.
Social media also has a relationship to cyberbullying. Cyberbullying, which is the use of technology to intimidate, threaten, or spread rumors, has impacted approximately 50% of American adolescents. Studies have found that individuals are more likely to say cruel, hurtful, or inappropriate messages online versus in a face-to-face interaction – meaning that more individuals are impacted and involved in these incidents than IRL. Cyberbullying also has real consequences. Suicidal thoughts and actions, self-harm, and legal consequences are correlated with cyberbullying. Teens who engage in sending sexually explicit messages, or resending them in an act of cyberbullying, may even have consequences such as being registered as a sex offender. Even if it is a teenager taking the picture, child pornography is always a crime.
We also know that there are associations between the use of technology in general, and sleep disruption. Those adolescents who use technology prior to falling asleep – including social media, playing games, or texting – were found to have increased sleep difficulties. And given the important connection between sleep and mood, those with disrupted sleep cycles also had greater incidents of depression symptoms.
It’s not all bad news when it comes to teens and technology, however. Social media can help connect teenagers with one another. Particularly those who may have increased isolation, such as those with mental health concerns, or those within the LGBTQ+ community, support may be found in the online world, and foster relationships and meaningful connections that complement their offline lives. Social media can also help with identity formation and development, a critical stage in adolescence.
We know that social media continues to evolve, and teenagers are often the pioneers in new platforms and the ever changing landscape of online interactions. We also know that technology is here to stay, and adolescents will continue to use social media and technology. Open conversations with parents and safe adults, responsible use of technology and communication, and an understanding of the balance between social media relationships and real world functioning will help make social media a positive contribution to teenagers’ lives. For more information on parenting and adolescent development, contact us. We can help!