Health Watch: Social media’s mental health toll on teens

Published: May. 17, 2023 at 6:36 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A growing number of researchers agree that most popular social media apps are related to an unprecedented surge in teen depression, anxiety, and loneliness over the last decade. The American Psychological Association last week published a list of recommendations for adolescent social media use.

“There’s a very different quality of connectedness in real life versus the quality of connections that are built over social media,” said Dr. Jeremiah Dickerson, a child psychiatrist at the UVM Medical Center, whose career has progressed in near-parallel with the explosion of social media and smartphones in the early 2010′s. “For some people, it’s really easy to fall into this vicious cycle, and it can be really difficult to extract yourself from that, especially if you’re continuing to use social media a lot.”

The developing minds of teenagers are especially vulnerable to the manipulative algorithms of this technology, Dickerson said. A Pew Research Center poll last year found 95% of teens use at least some social media daily and 35% are using at least one of the five most popular platforms “almost constantly.”

About one-third of teens also say they spend too much time on social media. Reward systems, like the ping of a notification for engagement on a post, trigger a chemical response in the brain that is akin to addiction. And the teenage brain, Dickerson says, is wired to respond to those rewards. “The more dopamine that we’re pumping out, it makes us think, ‘Oh man, I want more of this, and I’m going to do something else to get more of it.’ And so if you get a lot of those ‘likes,’ it can be really rewarding for folks and you can get sucked in very quickly,” he said.

Dickerson says young girls are especially predisposed to the pressure of meeting unrealistic beauty standards. They’re exposed to photo editing apps -- erasing skin texture and altering body shapes --which can ultimately blur the line between reality and fantasy. “For some of us, we cognitively may realize, this is somebody who’s face-tuned or this is somebody who’s done a lot of airbrushing. But the emotional part of our brain may not be fully aware of that. Teens are examining their photos more closely and they’re paying excessive attention to their perceived flaws,” he said.

A CDC survey released in February shows from 2011 to 2021, persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in teenage girls soared from 36% to 57%. The percentage who’d considered suicide within the past year rose by 60%. In the previous decade -- before all the major social media apps launched -- levels remained relatively steady.

Still, evidence to definitively link social media and mental health issues is scarce. Correlation, scientists say, is not causation. But researchers say the timing is tough to ignore. That’s why Dickerson and the APA urge parents to model healthy social media relationships and be curious -- not judgemental -- with their kids. “Does it make you feel lousy about yourself when you’re scrolling Instagram? Kids may not realize that until they’re asked the question. If parents are able to set limits and set boundaries around their child’s use, the better the outcome,” Dickerson said. He says teens’ sense of self is filtered through how other people see them.

The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey suggests schools can be part of the solution by establishing programs and providing resources that foster quality, face-to-face, in-person connections.

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