In today's digital age, social media has become an integral part of young people's lives, influencing how they interact, communicate, and perceive the world around them. Social media encompasses a variety of online platforms that facilitate the sharing of information, ideas, and content among users (Twenge & Campbell, 2018). These platforms can range from popular ones like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, to emerging platforms, threads, and forums tailored for specific interests or communities (Kuss & Griffiths, 2017). While social media offers numerous benefits, it is essential to understand its role in youth mental health and the potential drawbacks associated with its usage.
What is social media and does it have benefits for youth?
Social media serves as a tool for connecting with friends, sharing experiences, and expressing creativity. It enables individuals to communicate instantly and globally, fostering a sense of community and belonging (Primack et al., 2017). For young people, social media often acts as a platform for self-expression, social interaction, and a source of information (Primack et al., 2016). It has the potential to be a space to increase connectivity, build community, build cultural and global awareness, and develop skills. However, it does not always have solely positive benefits on youth. It’s crucial for parents, educators, and community members to recognize that excessive use or misuse of social media can have adverse effects on mental health.
How often are youth using social media and why does that matter?
On average, children ages 8-12 in the U.S. spend 4-6 hours a day watching or using screens, and teens spend up to 9 hours. In a survey conducted in 2022, it was discovered that teenagers typically dedicate an average of 3.5 hours per day to using social media (Mineo, 2023). However, a more recent poll suggests that this average is reaching 4.8 hours per day (Rothwell, 2023).
Research shows that teens who exceed three hours of daily social media usage are at twice the risk of experiencing anxiety and depression (Riehm et al., 2019), and prolonged exposure to social media can have harmful consequences on youth mental health (Twenge & Campbell, 2018). Excessive use of social media may lead to disrupted sleep patterns, increased levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and a decline in overall well-being. Constant comparison to others, cyberbullying, and a fear of missing out (FOMO) can negatively impact self-esteem and contribute to feelings of inadequacy.
The biochemistry of 'likes'
The quest for 'likes' on social media isn't just about ego-boosting; it's a chemical reaction too. Receiving 'likes' on posts triggers a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This chemical rush can become addictive, with youth seeking constant validation. SEL helps them recognize this pattern and build a healthier relationship with their online presence. It fosters digital citizenship, promoting kindness and empathy as tools to combat the harshness of online interactions.
Youth mental health and YESS Institute's Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Programs
It is important to encourage youth to strike a balance between social media use and healthier alternatives. It can help them learn to set boundaries, practice empathy, and communicate responsibly, ultimately mitigating the negative impacts associated with excessive social media use. It's essential to promote a holistic approach to social engagement that prioritizes meaningful connections, real-life experiences, and personal growth. Some examples of healthier alternatives might include:
- Face-to-Face Interaction: Investing time in face-to-face interactions with family, friends, and communities can enhance social skills, empathy, and communication abilities in a more genuine and meaningful manner.
- Participation in Activities and Hobbies: Encouraging youth to engage in various activities and hobbies, whether it's sports, art, volunteering, or other interests, can promote well-rounded development and social awareness.
- Educational Pursuits: Utilizing the time spent on social media to engage in educational activities, reading, online courses, or learning new skills can lead to personal growth and knowledge acquisition, preparing youth for a better future.
- Outdoor Activities: Spending time outdoors, enjoying nature, and engaging in physical activities not only promote a healthier lifestyle but also facilitate social interactions and awareness of the environment.
Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a critical tool as it intersects with the complex realm of social media and youth mental health. Social media platforms often serve as significant sources of emotional stimulation, triggering a range of feelings, reactions, and even physical/biochemical responses. Through SEL, individuals can develop the skills needed to navigate this digital landscape effectively.
Understanding and managing emotions, fostering positive online relationships, and making responsible decisions about one's digital interactions are key components of SEL that directly translate to healthier online experiences. By promoting empathy and communication, SEL enables individuals to engage in social media in a manner that is respectful, considerate, and conducive to mental well-being. Additionally, SEL encourages digital resilience, helping individuals bounce back from negative online experiences and promoting a positive outlook on the role of social media in their lives. Ultimately, integrating SEL into digital literacy efforts can create a generation of individuals who are not only adept at using social media but also equipped to maintain their mental health in the digital realm.
Social media has become an inseparable part of the lives of today's youth, offering a multitude of benefits and challenges (Primack et al., 2016). Parents, educators, and community members should strive to educate youth about responsible social media usage, emphasizing the importance of balance, self-awareness, and healthy boundaries.
Additionally, implementing SEL into youths' lives, through SEL programs like those provided by the YESS Institute, can create another protective factor for youth enduring mental health challenges. By fostering open communication, providing guidance, and creating a space for youth to manage emotions, build positive relationships, and make responsible decisions, we can help youth navigate the digital landscape in a way that promotes their mental well-being and allows them to make the most of the advantages that social media offers.
Kuss, D. J., & Griffiths, M. D. (2017). Social networking sites and addiction: Ten lessons learned. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(3), 311.
Mineo, L. (2023, October 16). Murthy says social media hurting kids, time for government, tech firms to help. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2023/10/murthy-says-social-media-hurting-kids-time-for-government-tech-firms-to-help/.
Primack, B. A., Escobar-Viera, C. G., Fine, M. J., Whitehill, J. M., Barrett, E. L., & Linder, J. A. (2016). Influence of peers on social media use among adolescents: A pilot study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 58(1), 52-58.
Primack, B. A., Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., Whaite, E. O., Lin, L. Y., Rosen, D., ... & Miller, E. (2017). Social media use and perceived social isolation among young adults in the US. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 53(1), 1-8.
Riehm, K. E., Feder, K. A., Tormohlen, K. N., Crum, R. M., Young, A. S., Green, K. M., Pacek, L. R., La Flair L. N., & Mojtabai, R. (2019). Associations between time spent using social media and internalizing and externalizing problems among US youth. JAMA Psychiatry, 76(12), 1266-1273. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.2325.
Rothwell, J. (2023). Teens spend average of 4.8 hours on social media per day. Gallup. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/512576/teens-spend-average-hours-social-media-per-day.aspx.
Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2018). Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. JAMA pediatrics, 172(11), 1018-1026.