A Generation of Teens May Be Suffering from Unregulated Social Media, New Research Suggests

For most of us, social media is an integral part of our digital lives. For teenagers, the stakes are even higher.

The relationship teens have with social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat is causing an unprecedented mental health crisis. NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt pointed to some alarming statistics about teen mental health and social media use in recent testimony before the US Senate Judiciary Committee. He noted:

  • Teenage mental health has deteriorated rapidly since 2010, coinciding with the rise of social media
  • The crisis is specific to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression
  • The crisis has affected teenagers around the world, not just in the United States
  • Teens who use their phone 4-5 hours a day are significantly more likely to be depressed than teens who use their phone an hour or less a day

There are several underlying social, psychological and neurological explanations for why adolescents are more susceptible to the harmful effects of social media. Three recent studies can help us understand what social media does to a teenager’s mind.

#1. Social media causes a drop in body confidence

A recent study published in Research in psychology and behavior management tracked the impact of selfies on adolescent body confidence and well-being.

Research has found that selfie taking, posting, and viewing have a negative effect on teens’ mood and body confidence. Indeed, the selfie is mainly used as a way to gain recognition and validation from peers. The more people value it, the more likely they are to feel inadequate.

Scientists also note that viewing selfies can be as bad as posting them. Indeed, what the teenager is looking at is almost always a staged and strategically altered image of a face – yet teenagers record it as if it were the real thing.

The study went so far as to track the filtering practices of Singaporean teenagers as a way to manage insecurity and self-esteem. Teenagers, especially girls, directly crop, filter and edit their faces to improve their looks.

#2. Social media causes an increase in self-objectification

Women in Western cultures learn early on that others evaluate their bodies and they gradually internalize this observer perspective. Learning to assess yourself from a third-person, appearance-focused perspective is a process known as self-objectification.

This process encourages people, especially women, to idealize certain kinds of body types and try to achieve them.

A recent study published in the Journal of Media Psychology found that girls exercised body surveillance on social media by idealizing the “thin body ideal”. The study also pointed out that girls value looks over skill.

An important point highlighted by the researchers is that social media may contribute more to the body image problem than traditional media, as viewing and sharing sexualized images becomes a socially shared experience on these platforms. For example, users often discuss the bodies of individuals they see on Instagram, which could intensify the links between sexualized images and self-objectification.

#3. Social media creates an atmosphere of surveillance

Social media users are involved in a reciprocal process known as “social monitoring” in which they not only carefully manage their own posts, but also check the content that others post on their profiles and updates.

This surveillance instinct is often stronger in adolescents due to their need for peer feedback as well as their tendency to engage in social comparison.

According to a recent study published in The Journal of Psychologythe dynamics of social monitoring can negatively impact teenage social media users as it encourages them to seek out what is deemed normal, desirable, and popular in the online community instead of self-representation.

How can teens use social media responsibly?

More research is needed to answer this question, but Ross Szabo, the former Outreach Director of the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign, offers two suggestions:

  1. Take frequent social media breaks. Check with people in real life for their reactions. Take the time to connect with friends, family, and people at school to see how people interact with you instead of relying solely on social media.
  2. Be your most authentic self on social media. When you’re on social media, post all kinds of things that matter to you, not just the best things or the sides of you that may be superficial. The more authentic you are on social media, the more authentic your experiences can be both online and offline.