The Negative Effects of Social Media on Mental Health

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The Negative Effects of Social Media on Mental Health

February 9, 2021

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The Negative Effects of Social Media on Mental Health an Expert Guest Blog SmartSocial.com

The American Psychological Association now links social media to a rise in mental health disorders in teens. Parents and educators can’t prevent students from being exposed to social media. But they can focus on helping their tweens and teens develop a healthy relationship with social media.

It’s important to create an open and supportive environment to talk about social media with students to avoid the negative effects it can have on their mental health.

How social media causes problems on middle school and high school campuses

Headshot of Jessica Speer
Jessica Speer

Jessica Speer, Author

A Pew Research Center survey of 13-17 year old found that almost half are on their phones "almost constantly," and 97% are on social media, so it's no surprise that social media causes problems on school campuses. These challenges fall into two categories: Social-Emotional and Academic. 

Common Social-Emotional Problems related to social media:

  • Conflict and fallout resulting from students seeing what events they were not invited to outside of school.
  • Bullying, harassment, or blackmail in response to nudes and inappropriate content shared on social media.
  • Social hierarchy related to students with more likes, followers, etc.

Common Academic Problems related to social media:

  • Distraction and inattention in class as students are drawn to secretly check their phones whenever bored. 
  • Sleepiness due to checking feeds and connecting with friends late at night.

How Parents Can Help: 

  • Help teens see the bigger with regards to FOMO, feeling excluded, and social comparison. Talk about your own social media habits. Share what you like and don't like about your habits. Ask your teen how they are using social media and how it makes them feel. How can they use social media to maximize the positive and reduce the negative? Remind your teen that social media is full of unrealistic images and that these images never tell the whole story. Focus on-going discussions on using social media in ways that improve life instead of letting it take over or rule your life.
  • Regularly talk about digital footprints and explain what's not OK to share on-line. Discourage teens from gossiping, spreading rumors, bullying, or damaging someone's reputation — online or otherwise. Share stories about students that have overshared on social media and experienced a negative consequence. Future employers and colleges check students' social media accounts, so it's important to think before posting.
  • Set reasonable screen time limits. Talk to your teen about how to avoid letting social media interfere with his or her activities, goals, sleep, meals, or homework. Work as a family to come up with reasonable household rules that everyone abides by. Encourage a bedtime routine that avoids electronic media use, and keep cell phones and tablets out of teens' bedrooms.

Studies link excessive screen time to mental health issues

Time Magazine headline: There's worrying new research about kids' screen time and their mental health
Young people who spend seven hours or more a day on screens are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety than those who use screens for an hour a day, finds a new study published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports. TIME
ABC News headline: Social media, screen time linked to depression in teens, study says. Experts recommend parents engage with their kids about their online activitiesd
Researchers followed almost 4,000 [students] aged 12 to 16 over four years. Every year, students completed a survey about the amount of time they'd spent in front of digital screens... Over the course of four years, as little as a one-hour annual increase in social media or television viewing was associated with more severe depressive symptoms and lower self-esteem. ABC News

Remind students they are not alone

Dean McCoubrey, of MySociaLife.com, says it's important to remind students they are not alone, however alone they might feel. Many people feel anxious, scared, nervous, etc on social media. We only know only a fraction of what’s happening in other people's homes, their lives, their relationships, their school, and in their feelings and thoughts.

McCoubrey says if students want to start feeling better, they have to allow themselves not to be perfect or “like other people." You will never be exactly like other people. Here are McCoubrey's tips on how to combat these negative effects of social media on mental health.

10 tips for helping students develop a healthy relationship with screen time

Smart Social asked experts to talk about the effects of social media on mental health and to share tips for helping students develop a healthy relationship with screen time.

1. Curate your "friend" list and think before you post on social media

Headshot of Molly Tucker, Ph.D.
Molly Tucker, Ph.D.

Molly Tucker, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist

Whose posts are regularly populating your feed? Are these people actually your friends or distant acquaintances? Do they tend to post content that inspires and uplifts you or that agitates or depresses you? Consider paring down the people and pages you follow to reflect a community that helps you be your best self.

What sort of a presence do you want to be for others? Although social media can be a source of immediate validation of negative emotions, it can also be a vehicle for reflecting positive and uplifting messages to others. Perhaps you would like to reflect on one thing daily that you’re grateful for, post one beautiful picture of nature, or offer one encouraging comment to a friend in need each day. Utilizing these strategies can help you to be more intentional about your social media presence, rather than falling into an automatic, mindless, or draining routine.

2. Engage in meaningful activities with friends during screen time

Katie Lear headshot
Katie Lear

Katie Lear, LPC, RPT, RDT, Counselor, Play Therapist, Drama Therapist

While it may not have the same physical health risks as substance use, one of the negative effects of social media on mental health is that social media can be addictive. Social media platforms rely on users spending large amounts of time on their product in order to make it profitable, and so many social media platforms are designed to keep you scrolling for as long as possible. Watching videos or perusing social media can provide a quick hit of dopamine to the brain, which feels good in the moment but can keep teens from engaging in the kinds of activities that will be more rewarding over the long term.

As social media becomes more sophisticated, so does the marketing. Even the approachable-seeming, casually dressed influencers are usually presenting very carefully composed, filtered photos that don't accurately represent real life. This can lead to unhealthy comparisons for teens who may feel self-conscious about their bodies, appearance, finances, or material items. This can lead to lowered self-esteem and negatively impact mental health.

Playing through the screen

As teenagers grow, their friend group becomes increasingly important to their own sense of identity. It's the source of a lot of healthy emotional support that young people really need to rely on. However, mindless scrolling for hours on end can have a numbing effect, draining time from more productive activities and potentially setting the stage for depression. Encourage your tween or teen to engage more actively and meaningfully with their peers using screens: can they play a game together, work on a craft, or find something to do together while using the screen to communicate? This is likely to feel more like real socializing and have a more positive impact on your child's mood than simply exchanging likes or comments.

3. Ask your family members to help

Stacey Brown headshot
Stacey Brown

Stacey C. Brown, MA, LMHC, NCC, RYT200, Counselor, Educator, Yogi

Too much screen time can lead to depression, lethargy, sleeplessness, increased anxiety and increased irritability, especially if you already have those tendencies. Teens with ADHD, pre-existing anxiety and depression for example, may be especially susceptible to the magnified effects of symptoms if there is too much screen time.

If you are engaged in too much screen time, you will likely be neglecting other areas of your life that are important.

Use your technology to help you. Decide what is important to you: exercise, outdoor time, taking the dog for a walk, eating, naps, sleeping, dinner with the family, etc. and schedule it on your devices. Set an alarm or create a schedule to help you maintain a healthy balance.

Ask your family members to help you. Realizing you need help setting healthy boundaries for yourself and asking for help is a very smart decision. Ask your family to invite you for an evening walk or to join them for a board game every day to help shake you out of the electronics zone.

4. Designate screen free times and areas in your home

Nicole Beurkens headshot
Nicole Beurkens, Ph. D.

Dr. Nicole Beurkens, Clinical Psychologist

While things like social media and multiplayer video games allow children to connect and socialize with one another, research has shown that they can also increase isolation and feelings of loneliness. There is a concern that these activities lead to reduced social skills, as children do not experience enough social engagement in real-time with peers. 

Tips to develop a healthy relationship with screen time:

  • Have certain times and places where devices aren't used. Device free meals and not having devices in the bedroom at night are two simple starting points
  • Turn off notifications for apps to reduce problems with distraction, especially during school and homework time
  • Be aware of how much time you're spending on devices, and what you're doing on them. Use the Screen Time feature, or an app like Qustodio, to monitor how much time you're spending on different activities. This helps you make more informed decisions about how you want to be spending your time
  • Talk to parents or other trusted adults if you notice that you're having a hard time managing your device use or you're seeing and hearing things online that concern you

5. Be respectful, resilient, and responsible on social media

Clarence McFerren II headshot
Clarence McFerren II

Clarence McFerren II, Speaker, Educator, Author 

As an educator, I’ve seen students victimized or shamed due to social media posts. Virtual bullying can eventually lead to in-person bullying. I’ve had students who have hurt themselves, become suicidal, and institutionalized all because of things that happened on social media. 

It's of the utmost importance that students are educated about social media etiquette and mental health awareness - not only as separate entities but collectively. I teach students:

  • Be respectful. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Post positively and think about your future employers (would they hire you if they reviewed your activity?)
  • Be resilient. Bounce back from difficult situations. Participate in healthy activities, such as dance, to balance the chemicals in the body and release positive endorphins
  • Be responsible. Do what is expected and required. Study, read thought provoking literature/articles, complete chores, limit screen time to nurture real life relationships with friends and family

6. Restrict your own access to social media

Patricia Celan headshot
Patricia Celan

Patricia Celan, MD

If you find that you feel worse as a result of social media, make sure that you don't get drawn into the addictive nature of social media. There are steps you can take to limit your usage. 

Download an app, or use a built-in tool like Apple’s Screen Time, to restrict your access to social media after you spend a certain amount of time on it. You can restrict yourself per hour or per day. Increase those restrictions over time. If that's not effective or you need more, try having scheduled offline hours every day. Your phone/computer/tablet are off limits at certain times. You can also turn off your notifications on social media, or uninstall the social media app from your phone. Only access it when you're at your computer. 

Use social media to keep in touch with friends and family. Use it to enhance those connections rather than replace them. Otherwise, you will find yourself in an addictive habit of endless checking and scrolling that makes you unhappy.

7. Focus on achievements and less on aesthetics

Emmy Brunner headshot
Emmy Brunner

Emmy Brunner, Psychotherapist and the founder of The Recover Clinic

Practice gratitude and affirmations together to remind students that they are great. When parents focus on achievements that don’t revolve around aesthetics, they can raise body confident children. Whilst everybody loves a compliment, it's important to choose what you say to your child wisely. You never know what could be running through their mind and how your comments might impact them

Address inequalities perpetuated by the media and popular culture with your children too. Challenge public depictions that exploit or degrade people’s bodies and let your student know that you don’t think this is okay

Be the example that you want your child to see and reflect this in your own social media, too. By making your child aware of your own body insecurities, it can naturally perpetuate a copycat behavior model and make any inquisitive child question their own aesthetic value. Our kids learn from what we do so much more than what we say

8. Remember that social media is only part of the story

Dr. Sal Raichbach headshot
Dr. Sal Raichbach

Sal Raichbach, PsyD of Ambrosia Treatment Center

Teens' minds are still developing, and sometimes, they lack the critical thinking skills to deal with what they see online. Bullying on social networks is rampant, and just as damaging as bullying in-person. Even if a child isn't being bullied directly, they can still feel left out and disliked when they see their friends having fun on their timeline.

It's also vital to explain that what they see online is a highlight reel of other people's lives. No one posts about their daily struggles, so from the outside-in, it looks like everyone is living a perfect life. In reality, everyone has problems, and what you see is how they chose to present themselves. Remind students that you have to take everything you see on social media with a grain of salt. You're not getting the full picture.

9. Find more offline activities that make you feel good

Kealia Reynolds headshot
Kealia Reynolds

Kealia Reynolds, House Method

Some students are absorbing hundreds, sometimes thousands, of 'likes' on a daily basis that can be perceived as a nod in their favor. These ‘likes’ release dopamine into the body, creating a temporary feel-good effect. As soon as the 'likes' stop, or you don't get enough on a post, you're left feeling unsatisfied and constantly wanting more from your social followers.

When you're comparing yourself to others, who are getting much more attention and love, you start playing the comparison game and get into the mindset that you're not good enough.

Children can develop a healthy relationship with social media by spending less time on screens and more time on other offline activities, like a sport or hobby. Remind your children that most of what is posted is a filtered version, a highlight reel, if you may, of someone's life. Encourage them to follow people on social media who are as real and vulnerable as possible. This might take some vetting, but it will hopefully remind them that who they are is enough.

10. SmartSocial.com Founder Josh Ochs shares tips to help prevent excessive social media use

Conclusion

The negative effects of social media on mental health are cause for concern. Parents and educators can help their students develop a positive relationship with screen time. To better equip students to use social media in a positive way, parents and educators can set a positive example of online behaviors, have open discussions about the unrealistic standards it promotes, and help them honor their accomplishments with gratitude.

If at any time you believe your child's mental health is suffering and they need help, consider reaching out to a counselor or therapist for guidance.

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