It’s tough to be a teen. It always has been. Peer pressure, bullying, fledgling relationships, grades, the looming and uncertain future away from the nest… the list goes on. It’s no wonder teen depression is becoming a growing concern.
And these days it’s tougher than ever. According to a study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, in July of this year, teens that spend a lot of time using social media are more prone to developing mental health issues. Cyberbullying, sexting, online body shaming and ostracization are just some of the many issues that contribute to teen depression, adding to and exacerbating the already harsh social climate young adults find themselves in.
Yet it’s a safe assumption to make that being a teen and not having or using social networks is akin to social suicide in this day and age. And they apparently use it a lot.
Where to Find Teens in the Age of Technology
A recent Pew Research Center study found that 24% of teens go online “almost constantly”, a statistic owing mostly to the fact that nearly all of them have smartphones (see below). The study also found that the most popular social media site is Facebook, and that a whopping 41% of teens in the 13-17 year old age group use it. That’s followed by Instagram (20%) and Snapchat (11%). Tumblr, Kik Messenger, and Vine are also being used by them.
There’s also texting, which is by and large the most popular method for communication between the teenage demographic. 88% of teens have cell phones or smartphones, and an astounding 90% of those teens use their phones to text. As the Pew Research discovered, a typical teen sends and receives 30 texts per day. In addition, 33% of teens supplement texting by using newer messaging apps like Kik or WhatsApp.
An Aggravating Symptom, Not the Root Cause
A study by Ottawa Public Health, the city of Ottawa’s agency for health information, programs and services, surveyed 750 students in grades seven through twelve and found that 25% of the students spent at least two hours a day or more using social media. It also found that the students who spend that much time on social media were significantly more likely to suffer and report symptoms of teen depression such as “poor self-rated mental health, psychological distress, suicidal ideation, or unmet need for mental health support.”
In addition, they found that those teens who suffer from depression actually use social media more than those who aren’t depressed. They seek out interactions using social media to keep from feeling isolated and alone.
The study also strongly indicated that the link between poor mental health and constant use of social media has an effect on teens over time, not immediately, and more so than for casual users. It also went on to cite that the use of social media can’t fully explain why teens end up suffering from mental health problems, but that there is definitely some correlation.
This view is in line with an older study by NCBI who surveyed 160 students. What they found was that “Online social networking is related to depression.” Despite such a statement, the study added, “Additional research is required to determine the possible causal nature of this relationship.”
In addition, as reported by the BBC, a team of psychologists from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the University of Leuven in Belgium found:
“Facebook use correlated with a low sense of well-being. The more people used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time. Rather than enhancing well-being… these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”
Social Media is the New Photoshop
A major problem with teens using social media is the distortion of their world view. Social media for teens is akin to Photoshop. All of us are subject to endless magazines with the most beautiful models adorning their covers, and while it’s now common knowledge that these photos have been meticulously touched up, this does little to assuage their psychological impact.
As this type of “reality” slowly sinks into the minds of children, pre-teens and teens, taking root in their still developing brains, a distorted image of both themselves and the world seems inevitable. The effect on teen girls in particular — and the resulting plethora of psychological dysfunctions, teen depression included — has been widely documented.
It is not hard to extrapolate this “photoshop effect” to the social media use of the individual in our society, particularly teenagers. Social media profiles are both painstakingly crafted and consumed with these quixotic and unattainable ideals at their core.
Instagram in particular is worse for this than any of the others. This app allows users to filter their photos. And while it may be fun, it is far from harmless, simply for the same reason cited above: knowledge of the fact that photos have been doctored does little to change their impact on us.
As adults, however, we are mature enough to be a little more discerning. Unfortunately this is not the case with our youth, as the rising rates of teen depression clearly indicate. Yet to suggest a curbing of their use is absurd — it simply won’t happen. So the onus falls on the consumer, as always, to raise their consciousness enough to either quit their consumption or lessen said impact upon viewing.
What we’ve all forgotten is the original intention of these social networking devices: social networking. A site such as Facebook remains an invaluable resource, just like Skype, that helps connect families and friends to other families and friends across continents. But along the way, of course, the ego got in there and distorted its original purpose.
And this is the most unsettling part of what social networking appears to be evolving into, as teens who’ve grown up with it and have no conception of a life without it likely don’t understand that they’re “boasting while posting”.
Posting and sharing have been part of their life from the get-go. Their self-worth is all tied up in the technology, and if there’s one clear message to be had, it’s that being “not ok” is.… not okay. Which, of course, in a type of vicious cycle, will only lead to even higher numbers of teen depression. As Slate magazine put it:
“Blandness will not do, and… sad stuff doesn’t make the cut, either. The site’s very design—the presence of a “Like” button, without a corresponding “Hate” button—reinforces a kind of upbeat spin doctoring. (No one will “Like” your update that the new puppy died, but they may “Like” your report that the little guy was brave up until the end.).”
In Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, led by Alex Jordan, Jordan told Slate how miserable people were after checking social media sites, saying: “They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life.”
For teens, who are already inundated by all sorts of overwhelming emotions due to their highly hormonal states, the likelihood of developing mental and emotional disorders due to the influence of social media should be plain to see, regardless of the building evidence to back it up. Teen depression, moodiness, ‘acting out’ and posturing were around long before social media arrived, so it only stands to reason that a technology built to represent and reflect the mental states of its users would end up exacerbating those states.
The most obvious antidote is, of course, parental guidance. Parents helping their children understand that social media distorts.
Second to this would be to limit their time on social media– as much as possible and of course within reason. Don’t let them text while they eat. Keep a mental tally on how many hours they’re clocking on Instagram and Facebook. Set daily time restraints– create boundaries and enforce limits.
It is a fairly simple idea: the prescription for using social media too much is… less social media. A way for a teen to occupy their downtime may be as simple as having more direct face-to-face interactions. Instead of texting, friends can connect with others by using the phone. Remember that the smartphone the teen is using to post on Instagram includes a phone! Use it the next time you want to text.
For anyone with a teenager at home this may seem like somewhat of a pipe dream. Dr. Brenda K. Wiederhold of the Interactive Media Institute in San Diego has a different approach. Simply, that parents shouldn’t punish their children, but rather infiltrate the sites they use the most. As Wiederhold told the Huffington Post:
“We see social networking sites, which may be a problem for some, also being a solution. . . Since teens are on the sites, it is the perfect place for public health and service providers to reach out and connect with this vulnerable population and provide health promotion systems and supports.”
Encourage them to begin showing their flaws — if even in a nearly infinitesimal way to begin with — leading to, say, taking an Instagram of themselves showing sides of their faces with pimples. If teens are actually willing to display their flaws, along with all of their good aspects of course, their friends might, in turn, share their own, and the alternate reality that is social media may begin to develop a little transparency.
Basically, lets get real together, be a little more vulnerable, and watch the rates of teen depression drop accordingly.