Teenagers who spend most of their time online comparing their lives to others may experience increased depression and anxiety. See what you can do to help.
Adolescents are already at a time of great stress and social pressure, and social media usage may only be making it worse, according to several recent studies drawing a connection between social media use and depression.
The need to be constantly available through social media and other mediums can cause depression, anxiety, and have a negative impact on sleep patterns, according to a recent presentation by researchers at the University of Glasgow before the British Psychological Society (BPS). The research is not yet published, but highlights presented to BPS reveal that adolescents involved in the study felt anxiety about the pressure of being constantly available, as well as not responding immediately to text messages or social media posts.
Lead researcher Heather Cleland Woods, PhD, says adolescence is already a period of vulnerability for the onset of depression, anxiety, and poor sleep, and social media use-particularly at night-may be exacerbating these problems. Night-time social media use, she says, along with emotional investment in social media were tied among the study participants to poor sleep quality, low self-esteem, and higher anxiety and depression levels.
Cleland Woods says the cause of these social media impacts is unclear, but what is obvious is the popularity of social media and mobile Internet devices adolescents use today.
A report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in August 2015 revealed that 95% of US teenagers use the Internet, and 81% of those maintain a social media presence. The report referenced a 2009 study that showed that more than half of adolescents accessed their social media accounts once per day, but 22% logged on more than 10 times each day. The report noted that, despite the advantages social media can provide in terms of improved communication, there are also many drawbacks.
“Adolescents are connected to social media at a time when their levels of social and emotional development leave them vulnerable to peer pressure and when they have a limited capacity to self-regulate,” the report notes. “Therefore, for some, the pro-social benefits of online interactions coincide with exposure to potential risks and safety concerns of social media use, including cyberbullying, online harassment, and privacy issues.”
The report also revealed that roughly 23% of adolescents who use social media have reported being victims of cyberbullying, and that teens lack the strategies to cope with the stresses these situations present.
In its last clinical report on social media use, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warned against increasing risks of cyber bullying, online harassment, sexting, depression, influences from advertising, and privacy concerns in regard to adolescent use of social media.
The AAP recommended pediatricians counsel parents to become familiar with the technology they are using, and that they talk to their children about their online use and the impact it may have on them.
Joanne Davila, PhD, professor and director of clinical training in the department of psychology at Stony Brook University, says parents must also realize that it’s not just the time spent on social media that can have a negative impact on their emotional well-being, but what their children are exposed to that matters.
“It is not the frequency with which youth use social media that is associated with depression, but rather the processes they engage in while using social media that may increase their risk,” Davila says. “Social comparison-specifically comparing yourself to others in a negative way-is related to risk for greater depressive symptoms. Thinking that you're not as good, as attractive can lead youth to feel bad about themselves and to feel depressed.”
A study published in April 2015 the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that while social media may not be the cause of depression, rates of depression appear to be higher in those individuals who spend more time on social media sites-particularly those who spend that time comparing themselves to others.
Pediatricians can advise parents to be on the lookout for when their child is negatively comparing themselves to their peers or other people they see on social media.
“Parents should talk with their kids to help them recognize their own strengths and to increase their sense of self-worth. So, look for low self-worth and help kids with that,” Davila says. Pay particular attention to specific negative interactions-like being bullied or rejected,” Davila adds.
Mitch Prinstein, PhD, John Van Seters Distinguished Professor and director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina (UNC), says pediatricians should teach parents to have an awareness of their child’s online habits and be open to talking to them about their feelings, but also to teach their children to utilize caution and good judgment in their social media usage.
“It is a context where adolescents can start to feel badly about themselves, particularly if they are using social media as a way to compare themselves with others,” Prinstein says. “Remember, social media usually presents peoples’ best selves, and no one feels like their best self every day.”
Jacqueline Nesi, a UNC student who co-authored a paper on the effect of social comparison and feedback seeking in social media use with Prinstein, says the effect of social media depends on how adolescents are using it.
Female students and adolescents who were unpopular in their peer or school group self-reported the most incidences of depression related to technology-based social comparison, according to Prinstein and Nesi’s research. Adolescents who sought excessive reassurance offline or have a history of depressive episodes were particular at risk.
“I would encourage parents to have open, honest communication with their teenagers about social media, and to set clear boundaries regarding expectations for their use of social media,” Nesi says. “Parents should talk to their children about what they are doing and seeing online, as well as how they are feeling about it.”
As far as what to look for in children and adolescents have a problem regulating their social media use, it can mimic the symptoms of addiction.
“Pediatricians should be looking for addiction symptoms similar to those for diagnostic disorders, such as a gambling addiction, which include attempts to cut back and jeopardizing close relationships or perhaps be aware of sleep deprivation,” says Larry Rosen, PhD, professor emeritus and past chair of the psychology department at California State University. “In addition, I would advise the pediatrician to be looking out for signs of obsession, including phantom vibrations, and expressing a need to constantly be on a device, particularly a smartphone or a gaming device.”