Social media is a big part of many teens' lives. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey of nearly 750 13- to 17-year-olds found that 45% are online almost constantly and 97% use a social media platform, such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.
But what impact does social media use have on teens?
Social media benefits
Social media allows teens to create online identities, communicate with others and build social networks. These networks can provide teens with valuable support, especially helping those who experience exclusion or have disabilities or chronic illnesses.
Teens also use social media for entertainment and self-expression. And the platforms can expose teens to current events, allow them to interact across geographic barriers and teach them about a variety of subjects, including healthy behaviors. Social media that's humorous or distracting or provides a meaningful connection to peers and a wide social network might even help teens avoid depression.
Social media harms
However, social media use can also negatively affect teens, distracting them, disrupting their sleep, and exposing them to bullying, rumor spreading, unrealistic views of other people's lives and peer pressure.
The risks might be related to how much social media teens use. A 2019 study of more than 6,500 12- to 15-year-olds in the U.S. found that those who spent more than three hours a day using social media might be at heightened risk for mental health problems. Another 2019 study of more than 12,000 13- to 16-year-olds in England found that using social media more than three times a day predicted poor mental health and well-being in teens.
Other studies also have observed links between high levels of social media use and depression or anxiety symptoms. A 2016 study of more than 450 teens found that greater social media use, nighttime social media use and emotional investment in social media — such as feeling upset when prevented from logging on — were each linked with worse sleep quality and higher levels of anxiety and depression.
How teens use social media also might determine its impact. A 2015 study found that social comparison and feedback seeking by teens using social media and cellphones was linked with depressive symptoms. In addition, a small 2013 study found that older adolescents who used social media passively, such as by just viewing others' photos, reported declines in life satisfaction. Those who used social media to interact with others or post their own content didn't experience these declines.
And an older study on the impact of social media on undergraduate college students showed that the longer they used Facebook, the stronger was their belief that others were happier than they were. But the more time the students spent going out with their friends, the less they felt this way.
Because of teens' impulsive natures, experts suggest that teens who post content on social media are at risk of sharing intimate photos or highly personal stories. This can result in teens being bullied, harassed or even blackmailed. Teens often create posts without considering these consequences or privacy concerns.
Protecting your teen
There are steps you can take to encourage responsible use of social media and limit some of its negative effects. Consider these tips:
- Set reasonable limits. Talk to your teen about how to avoid letting social media interfere with his or her activities, sleep, meals or homework. Encourage a bedtime routine that avoids electronic media use, and keep cellphones and tablets out of teens' bedrooms. Set an example by following these rules yourself.
- Monitor your teen's accounts. Let your teen know that you'll be regularly checking his or her social media accounts. You might aim to do so once a week or more. Make sure you follow through.
- Explain what's not OK. Discourage your teen from gossiping, spreading rumors, bullying or damaging someone's reputation — online or otherwise. Talk to your teen about what is appropriate and safe to share on social media.
- Encourage face-to-face contact with friends. This is particularly important for teens vulnerable to social anxiety disorder.
- Talk about social media. Talk about your own social media habits. Ask your teen how he or she is using social media and how it makes him or her feel. Remind your teen that social media is full of unrealistic images.
If you think your teen is experiencing signs or symptoms of anxiety or depression related to social media use, talk to your child's doctor.