Social media is a near-constant presence in the lives of many teenagers in the United States. According to a Pew Research Center report, 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, 97% say they use the internet daily (with 46% reporting “almost constant” usage) and among the top five social media platforms, 35% of teens say they are on at least one of those platforms “almost constantly.”1
This raises important questions such as, Does social media impact the mental, behavioral and social health of teenagers? If so, how? Is teen social media use helpful or harmful?
The reality seems to be a bit more complicated than a simple yes or no answer as to whether teen social media use is helpful or harmful. Instead, it’s important to consider the nuances of the situation. Take a closer look at the pros and cons of social media for teens.
In This Article:
- Examining the Pros and Cons of Social Media for Teens
- Social Media Has the Potential To Lead to Addiction
- How To Improve Teen Social Media Use
Examining the Pros and Cons of Social Media for Teens
Social media may be likened to a digital town square, enabling people to connect with one another in an immediate way that transcends geographical distance. But what effect is social media having on teens who are navigating a crucial developmental age? Let’s take a closer look at some of the reasons why social media may be helpful for teens or why social media may be harmful for teens.
Social Media Can Have Positive Benefits on Mental and Social Health
It is helpful to go directly to adolescents when evaluating the effect of social media on teens. In fact, 45% of teens surveyed believe social media has a neutral effect, while 31% say it has a mostly positive effect.2 For teens, social media has the potential to offer the following:
- Makes them feel as though they aren’t alone
- Allows self-expression
- Facilitates connections with friends and family
- Enables them to meet new people with the same interests
- Makes it easier to find news and other information
- Allows them to seek support from others
Social media can allow people to feel like they fit in with a group of people. It can also decrease feelings of isolation and loneliness, while increasing the ability to connect with others over shared interests and views. When looking at the potential benefits of social media, it is necessary to draw a line between teens who are actively engaged online and those who are passively browsing.
A study from the University of Missouri found that users who actively post and comment to stay connected with friends and family are likely to find social media beneficial for social health. However, those who use social media for “surveillance” to passively keep up with others rather than posting or commenting are more likely to develop envy of others and increase their risk of depression.3
Social Media Can Have Negative Effects on Mental and Social Health
Social media envy is a widespread phenomenon. Users on social media platforms do not see a complete depiction of the lives of other users. A typical social media user will upload posts about fun vacations, accomplishments and other positive parts of their life.
However, they tend not to post about negative things going on in their life. When a teenager passively looks at these apparently perfect lives, it can inspire feelings of depression and heightened insecurities because their life seems less than perfect.
Studies Related to the Negative Effects of Social Media Use
A study in “Clinical Psychological Science” looked at the social media and electronic device usage among teenagers and compared it to the rate of teen suicide between 2010 and 2015. The researchers discovered that 48% of teenagers who spend at least five hours per day on electronic devices have at least one risk factor of suicide. Only 33% of teens who spend two hours per day online had at least one risk factor.4
However, it is important to note that these data are inconclusive. There is a correlation between social media use and depression or suicide, but this does not mean that social media use is the cause. It is possible that teens who are prone to depression and suicidal ideation are more likely to go on social media for many hours per day.
When considering why social media is harmful for teens, it’s important to explore both sides of the equation. That is, instead of looking solely at how teens may be affected by social media use, you might also consider how the platforms themselves may be pushing a certain narrative on young users.
In 2021, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified in Congress regarding internal company documents allegedly demonstrating that Facebook (a parent company, now named Meta) knew that Instagram could pose mental health risks for children and teens. Among the leaked documents was a study conducted by Facebook showing that 13.5% of girls in the U.K. said that Instagram usage worsened their suicidal thoughts, while another study demonstrated that 17% of teen girls experienced worsening of their eating disorders after using Instagram.5
Teen girls, in particular, may be more likely than teen boys to succumb to a harmful cycle of seeking validation on social media in a way that leads them to compare themselves to unrealistic standards. This, in turn, can worsen mental health.5
Social media platforms like the parent company Meta have been criticized for not doing enough to protect young users. In fact, platforms like Instagram have come under fire for intentionally using “predatory algorithms” that boost negative engagement. Because strong, negative emotions capture users’ attention longer than positive emotions, the algorithms of Instagram are said to be designed to boost negative emotions for the purpose of keeping users on the platform longer, thereby increasing advertising revenue.6
Social Media Has the Potential To Lead to Addiction
Another major issue in social media psychology is the potential for social media addiction. Although social media addiction has not been recognized as an official mental health disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, there are potential warning signs to watch out for. Some of the most common manifestations of addictive behavior among social media users include:7
- Preoccupation with social media, even when not currently using it
- Using social media to cope with negative problems or regulate mood
- Feeling angry when attempts to reduce social media usage are made
- Experiencing negative impacts on schoolwork and grades due to social media overuse
Teens who struggle with social media addiction may experience a number of negative effects, including:7
- Increased feelings of loneliness and isolation
- Low self-esteem
- Sleep loss
- Anxiety (including social anxiety disorder) and depression
- Suppressed ability to empathize with others
How To Improve Teen Social Media Use
Therapists who study social media psychology can help teenagers struggling with social media usage by encouraging them to minimize their time spent online. Replacing time spent online with real-life activities can help teenagers improve their ability to build healthy relationships and enjoy healthy interactions with people in offline settings.
It may be helpful to encourage teens to set limits, such as by establishing a certain window of time each day or week for social media usage. Teens may also turn off notifications on the apps so that they aren’t as tempted to log on frequently.
In some cases, young people may benefit from speaking with a mental health counselor or therapist. This can be particularly beneficial if they’re having trouble reducing or eliminating social media use on their own.
If you feel called to help children, teens or adults work through obstacles to their mental and social health, consider enrolling at Grand Canyon University. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences offers a number of degree programs in counseling and psychology, including those that emphasize addiction counseling. Fill out the form on this page to learn more.
1 Vogels, E., Gelles-Watnick, R. & Massarat, N. (2022, Aug. 10). Teens, social media and technology 2022. Pew Research Center. Retrieved Nov. 21, 2023.
2 Mental Health America. (n.d.). Social media and youth mental health. Retrieved Nov. 21, 2023.
3 News Bureau. (2015, Feb. 3). If Facebook use causes envy, depression could follow. University of Missouri. Retrieved Nov. 21, 2023.
4 Twenge, J. M., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. L., & Martin, G. N. (2017, Nov. 14). Increases in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among U.S. adolescents after 2010 and links to increased new media screen time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1), 3–17. Retrieved Nov. 21, 2023.
5 Romo, V. (2021, Oct. 5). Whistleblower's testimony has resurfaced Facebook's Instagram problem. NPR. Retrieved Nov. 21, 2023.
6 Feldscher, K. (2021, Oct. 8). How social media’s toxic content sends teens into ‘a dangerous spiral. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Retrieved Nov. 21, 2023.
7 Cherney, K. (2020, Aug. 6). What is social media addiction? Healthline. Retrieved Nov. 21, 2023.
Approved by the director of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Jan. 2, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.