Social media’s grip on teen mental health

An online search of “social media and mental health in youth” reveals numerous scientific studies explaining how long-term, significant use of social media negatively impacts the mental health of children, teenagers and young adults. Federal agencies and officials, including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the United States Surgeon General, as well as national medical associations like the American Psychological Association (APA) and American Medical Association (AMA), have all released reports documenting the mounting concern surrounding the negative psychological impacts of social media use. Alarmingly, it seems social media platforms have suspected or known of this link for years, and yet did nothing to stop social media addiction or other harms caused by their products. 

Science shows social media hurts mental health of adolescents

Today, tweens (9 to 12 years old) are on screens, including social media, an average of 5.5 hours per day, while teens (13-18 years old) are on an average of 8.5 hours per day, according to a 2021 report released by nonprofit family advocacy group Common Sense: This usage “increased substantially” for age both groups from the previous study conducted by national researchers in 2019.

These figures are disturbing, given evidence linking social media use and negative psychological effects like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal ideations or attempts. Studies researching adolescent social media use discovered that long periods of use – sometimes as few as three hours – are linked to psychological harm. Other research found that social media use can increase adolescents’ risk of developing suicidal ideation, depressive symptoms, eating disorders and anxiety.

“In 2021, 42% of high school students felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row,” an increase from 2011 to 2021, according to the CDC. Suicide rates have also tragically risen among adolescents, jumping 29% for teens ages 15 to 19. Similarly, rates of generalized anxiety and eating disorders have also steadily increased over the last several years.

Social media companies and adolescents

With the near omnipresence of social media in daily life, consumers expect social media platforms to have their best interests in mind, especially regarding adolescent health and safety. Unfortunately, that may not always be the case. Allegedly, social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, specifically targeted adolescents as a “valuable but untapped” market in the United States, according to The Wall Street Journal. To successfully trap this “untapped” market, social media may have tailored their platforms and design features of the platforms to leverage  the psychology and neurophysiology of adolescents. The re-design worked, but as the number of adolescents using social media platforms increased, platforms began internally assessing the potential negative impacts of social media on this age group. What they found largely mirrored the findings of the studies discussed above – social media platforms are addictive, and that addiction leads to negative effects on adolescent mental health. 

What you can do to keep kids safe online

Adults can help keep adolescents safe online. The United States Department of Justice offers the following recommendations for adults monitoring an adolescent’s social media use, including:

  • Discussing internet safety and developing an online safety plan
  • Supervising use of the internet, including periodically checking profiles and posts
  • Reviewing games, apps, and social media sites before they are downloaded or used 
  • Adjusting privacy settings and using parental controls for online games, apps, social medial sites, and electronic devices
  • Teaching adolescents about body safety and boundaries, including the importance of saying “no” to inappropriate online requests
  • Monitoring for potential signs of abuse, including attempts to conceal online activity

Net Smartz, a National Center for Missing & Exploited Children website, also offers discussion starters for adults to speak to adolescents about social media safety. Those prompts guide adults, helping them reinforce safe online behaviors like removing anyone adolescents do not know, or taking down inappropriate posts or photographs. These tips can hopefully keep adolescents safe online, particularly when using social media platforms. Finally, if you or someone you know is talking about suicide, please call the suicide prevention hotline, open 24/7, by dialing 988 or visiting

Subscribe to our blog if you’d like to have more content like this sent directly to your inbox.