Is Social Media Making Your Adolescent More Anxious?
Takeaway: Adolescents already have to deal with a lot of anxiety and depression, and social media overuse just makes things worse. It distracts them from tackling their real-world problems, interferes with them developing an identity of their own, and worries them into thinking they’re missing out on all the fun other people seem to be having. As parents, we can set limits on social media use but might need the help of specialists to tackle any underlying anxiety and depression.
Social media is an exciting new phenomenon offering something for everyone.
There’s already so much to do online, and social media adds to the excitement by creating a digital social world for us to explore. A world built on emails, texts, games, apps, blogs, message boards, and more. Best of all, there’s something for everyone. For instance, Facebook lets us peek into friends’ lives, WhatsApp helps us chat with them, Twitter broadcasts our opinions, and Instagram distills life into catchy photos and videos.
So, it’s no surprise that adolescents spend large chunks of their time on social media.
Researchers can now quantify just how addictive social media is for Gen Z. For instance, a Pew Research study revealed that nearly 5 out of every 10 teenagers are almost ‘constantly’ online. And a GlobalWebIndex report outlined that the average 16-year-old spends about three hours a day on social media. Notably, adolescents seem to prefer certain types of platforms over others. For instance, the same Pew Research study showed that 85% of teens use YouTube, 72% use Instagram, and 69% use Snapchat. Meanwhile, they seem to be moving away from Facebook – with 51% using it in 2018, versus 71% in 2014.
All this buzz is certainly deserved because social media can enrich an adolescent’s life.
We’re going to explore the negative aspects of social media in this post, but it’s worth looking at the positives first. And there are positives because social media does more than connect teens with their friends. It also lets them control the intensity of their interactions by using their online persona as a buffer. After all, virtual conversations are much less stressful than face-to-face meetups, making it easier to open up about experiences that are too embarrassing to talk about in real life. And this is especially useful for children who are shy or who feel rejected by their real-world peers. Because now, they’re not stuck with only the people in their city or town. Instead, they can cherry-pick a new tribe from people worldwide.
But although social media is new and exciting, it’s just an extension of real life. So, it comes with many real-life problems.
Social media mirrors real life, so it’s not as much of an escape as children think it’ll be. They might be able to make new friends and connect in new ways, but they still have to deal with tiresome behaviour. For instance, the Pew Research study we referenced earlier also found that 42% of teens online have to deal with name-calling and cyberbullying, 16% have to deal with people threatening them physically, 32% have to deal with false rumours about them, and 21% have to deal with friends and strangers tracking their activities and locations.
The trouble is that social media is designed to be addictive, so teens are in denial about its dangers.
Many children deny the negatives of social media, but this isn’t surprising considering their apps are expertly designed to fuel internet addiction. They give adolescents a boost of excitement every time someone retweets their post or leaves a flattering comment, but it’s a momentary thrill that needs to be reinforced by more social validation. So, users are stuck on a metaphorical hamster wheel with no way out unless they stop to reflect on what’s going on. And this leads to troubling behaviour like always wanting to check their social media feeds – even mid-conversation. Or withdrawing from their real-world life. Or lying about their social media use to mask their addiction.
And this brings us to the real issue, which is that social media sets the stage for adolescent anxiety and depression.
About half of all mental illnesses surface by the time a child turns 14, so adolescents already have to deal with a lot of depression and anxiety. And unfortunately, withdrawing into the artificial world of social media can add to these emotional challenges. For instance, social anxiety doesn’t disappear just because a child retreats from real-world interactions. And poor grades don’t get better when social media time steals from study time. These sorts of problems only get worse, undeniably linking social media use to feelings of hopelessness, isolation, anxiety, and depression. We don’t yet know for sure that it causes all these things. But we do know that there’s a link of some sort.
We all are affected by social media, but adolescents are particularly at risk because they’re still developing an identity.
Adolescence can be a beautiful period of introspection and personal growth, with children exploring their personalities and crafting an identity of their own. But all this gets warped with the social media ‘like’ button offering real-time feedback on everything they do. Now, anyone can give them a ‘thumbs up’ for posts and photos they approve of, and a ‘thumbs down’ for the rest. So, what could have been a wonderful journey of self-discovery with no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, becomes a harshly judged test with criticism — sometimes even from strangers. Sure, shades of this existed even in the pre-internet world, but it’s all so much more magnified now. Worse still, teens can fake a ‘perfect’ social media feed – essentially lying about their lives – by photoshopping all their images and posting highlights from the best parts of their year. And this can be so damaging – triggering body image issues and making adolescents feel like they and their lives aren’t good enough. This, in turn, entices them to create multiple ‘versions’ of themselves, customised for different social media apps. And it’s impossible to be at peace while juggling all these faked identities.
Social media also drives children towards ‘hyper-connection’ to avoid FOMO.
Social media feeds give adolescents constant FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), which pushes them to hyper-connect. I.e., to stay in a continuous virtual conversation with friends throughout the day so that they won’t miss out on any fun. And this can be highly toxic because everyone (extroverts and introverts alike) needs some downtime to recharge themselves. So, hyper-connection can drain adolescents’ emotional reserves, laying another pathway to anxiety and depression.
As parents, we can take simple steps to help our children navigate this complex social media world. But often, we’ll need a specialist’s help.
We can take simple steps to minimise the negative effects we’ve discussed. For example, we can set limits on how much time our children spend on social media, and we can help them be mindful of its effects. But dealing with underlying anxiety and depression is often quite a nuanced task. So, if you feel your child needs more than just a few new healthy habits, consider consulting a specialist to explore your options. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356 / (0) 79 9053 8654
- Email: Office@TheEdPsych.com
Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.
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