Social Media and Adolescent Mental Health: What We Actually Know


Sam Marzouk, PhD, LP

An alarming trend has emerged over the past decade.  A growing number of adolescents are seeking treatment for depression.  Jean Twenge, a researcher at San Diego State University, found that between 2005-2017 there was a 52 percent increase in the rate of major depressive disorder among adolescents aged 12-17.  There was a 63 percent increase in depression among those aged 18-25 during the period 2009-2017.  Many have interpreted this trend through a lens of optimism, seeing it as evidence that the stigma around mental illness is abating, and adolescents are now more willing to seek professional help for symptoms.  Others cannot help but notice the suspicious timing of this spike in adolescent depression with the ubiquity of social media and smartphone usage.  Researchers across multiple disciplines have examined the relationship between social media and adolescent mental health.  While there’s much we do not know, we are slowly starting to shed light on the deleterious impact social media usage can have on the well-being of our teenagers. 

There are likely multiple etiological factors that explain the recent rise in adolescent depression.  However, the evidence establishing a link between social media and adolescent depression is too powerful to ignore.  Most research has examined the impact that mere “time” on social media has on adolescent depression.  For example, Keles’s 2020 meta-analysis synthesizing the evidence of 13 studies found a modest but statistically significant relationship between time spent on social media and increased depression.  The daily amount of time spent on social media has been closely examined, with most studies finding that two or more hours a day is strongly correlated to increased depression symptoms.  The effects of light social media usage (i.e., less than one hour a day), on the other hand, are less clear.  Nearly all research with older adolescents suggests that light social media usage does not lead to poorer mental health outcomes, with some findings suggesting light usage may even offer psychosocial benefits such as increased social connection to peers.  Among preteens and younger adolescents, there is a noticeable lack of research examining effects of light social media usage.  While there is little debate regarding the negative effects of heavy social media use on adolescent mental health, this conclusion offers little clinical utility for practicing clinicians.  The nagging question remains: what is it about social media that may cause depression in teenagers?

Studies have begun to look beyond the effects of mere time spent on social media platforms.  For example, a small number of studies have explored the differing effects of social media usage by age.  There is strong evidence to suggest that preteens and younger adolescents are far more vulnerable to the negative impacts of social media compared to older adolescents.  Bullying often peaks during the preteen years, with smartphones and social media providing a 24/7 bullying platform.  Even without bullying, early adolescence is a fragile and malleable time for identity development, with younger teens less likely to question the distorted realities presented on social media.  While light social media use may be beneficial for older adolescents, there is no evidence suggesting this finding is generalizable to younger adolescents.  Gender has also emerged as another key variable with social media negatively affecting adolescent girls far more than boys.  Finally, some research has looked at how specific social media behaviors influence mental health outcomes.  Nesi and Prinstein (2015) found that adolescents who use social media more for social comparisons and reassurance seeking (e.g., posting a capture with the caption, “Do I look pretty today?”) tended to report higher depression symptom severity. 

The wheels of science move slowly, and there is much more to unpack in this area.  It may be a while before we get to the truth regarding social media and adolescent mental health.  Considering what we currently know, I’ve assembled the following working list of recommendations for parents regarding teens and social media use.  I plan to regularly update my recommendations as new research is published.

  1. No social media until high school.  Period.  As described above, there is strong evidence to suggest that younger adolescents and preteens are most vulnerable to the negative effects of social media.  While this may be pragmatically difficult to implement, the evidence is clear that children younger than 15 are at the highest risk.   
  2. If adolescents under 15 are on social media, limit usage to less than one hour per day.  For older adolescents limit usage to less than two hour per day.  While total time on social media is only one variable of interest, it’s allowed us to see how heavy use can be particularly detrimental to adolescent mental health.
  3. There should be no social media usage within one hour before bedtime.  The evidence suggests that social media usage can lead to delayed sleep onset and decreased total sleep time, thereby fueling the development of depression symptoms.   
  4. At first, allow teenagers to access platforms that place a stronger emphasis on social connection (e.g., social discord, reddit, snapchat) versus social comparison (e.g., Instagram).  We have learned through research how social media platforms can amplify an adolescent’s pre-existing tendency to engage in upward social comparison.  Furthermore, we know that one of the few reasons why light social media use can be beneficial for mental health is that it affords the opportunity for adolescents to feel more socially connected. 
  5. Monitor social media behaviors.  As discussed, time on social media is just one piece to this complicated puzzle.  What the adolescent is doing on social media may be more important.  I advise parents to closely monitor social media use and keep a particularly close eye on behaviors such as reassurance and feedback-seeking that have been found to be associated with depression.  

While we have learned much about social media and the possible harmful impact it may have on adolescents, there are still gaps in the literature and key questions unanswered.  Future research should consider comparing the effects of various social media platforms.  It would also be helpful to gain more insight into how specific social media behaviors influence mental health (e.g., number of posts per day, etc.)  Shedding light on the nuances behind total time spent on social media will help develop more insightful and robust recommendations.  Finally, as with any relationships between two variables, there are exceptions and outliers.  It would be helpful to better understand what protective factors could serve as a buffer for adolescents against the harmful effects of social media.  At the end of the day, social media is here to stay and it’s our job to help teenagers use it responsibly and minimize its many risks. 

About the Author

Sam Marzouk, Ph.D., L.P. is a pediatric psychologist and owner of Promethean Psychology in Edina, Minnesota. A strong advocate for evidence-based psychology, Dr. Marzouk is passionate about translating research into clinical practice to empower children, adolescents and families.

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