How does Social Media Affect Teenagers’ Mental Health?

How does Social Media Affect Teenagers’ Mental Health?

How does social media affect teenagers mental health?

Well that’s a good question and one I have often asked myself when I’ve been sitting at yet another medical appointment related to mental health with one of my teens. The struggle is real.

Right now I have four teenagers – two of my own (aged 14 and 18 recently), and two more step children who live in Coffs Harbour and who until the NSW lockdowns of 2021 we saw on average monthly and on school holidays (aged 15 and 19 years). Sadly, a high percentage of them have experienced some form of mental health issue in their teen years, some serious. And that’s not to mention their immediate peer groups, of whom very high percentages are also suffering some form of mental illness, some also very serious (I’m talking suicide attempts and regular heavy medication).

Despite it all being a very sad state of affairs, I actually feel privileged that I am privy to this information, as I know this means they know me and trust me enough to share where they are at, which I’d rather they did than hiding it. I’m also passionate about doing what I can to help each and every one of them, when many parents of the peer group are completely unaware there is even a problem, and I have plenty of personal experience to offer having grown up in a community where I experienced at least half a dozen of my friends take their lives by the time I was 21 years, and having experienced my dad have a full mental breakdown when I was 17. 

Anxiety, depression, self image issues, sleep deprivation, bullying, exclusion, loneliness and more are just some of the mental health issues we are talking about here. However I also don’t think we can push all blame squarely on the shoulders of social media. 

These kids are growing up in one crazy world and I think it is without a doubt the most challenging time in history to raise a child. Apart from the impacts of social media, I think the long standing impacts of COVID-19 on our teens, whether they pick up a phone or not, cannot be under-estimated. Between the social media and COVID impacts, the kids are simply not coping. And I, like many parents, am deeply concerned.

I know social media pretty well….

I have worked in social media in one form or another for the past 13 years including as the founder of a marketing agency specialising in offering social media services and training, and for two years as an official community trainer for Facebook (now Meta). I also wrote a book called No Kidding about kids and technology back in 2014.

At that point the use of social media by young people was on the rise, and my key point was that it was time for parents to step up and be a parent and take an interest in how much time their kids were spending online, and what they were spending their time on. My key point was that today’s parents are in a unique position. We remember life before technology, and we’ve come to know life with technology very much in it. So I consider us something of a ‘bridging generation’. We owe it to our kids to remind them that there is a life outside of their screen and we have personal experience of what that life is and can be like. 

The headline that has recently elevated this topic

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently brought up the topic with fellow G20 summit leaders, imploring them to back stronger accountability against social media platforms that target young Australians. 

He is seeking digital accountability with the social platforms that he says enable anonymous trolling, targeting vulnerable people.  Under the current law, social media companies are not considered to be the publishers of material posted to their platforms. If a user makes defamatory comments on a Facebook page, for instance, legal responsibility lies with the owner of the page.

But from my side this approach is ridiculous and pretty similar to the failed attempt to stop Meta (previously Facebook) sharing Australian news on it’s platform which occurred in February 2021. The politicians clearly did not understand how the platforms worked, nor how the publishers (news outlets) used them, nor how the consumers consumed the news on them. The publishers and the platform pushed back. News was reinstated on the platform. 

Yes, bullying and trolling is absolutely an issue on social media. My kids have experienced it and I’ve even experienced it myself. In the industry we even say your profile isn’t high enough if you’ve never had a troll and I can only imagine the level of constant bullying and trolling poor Mr Morrison must be subjected to on a daily basis. But I think he’s completely missing the mark on what the deeper issues at hand are here for our teens when it comes to social media and their mental health. It isn’t just bullying and trolling. There is a much bigger topic at hand than that. 

Let’s instead talk about what platforms the teens are actually using (it’s not really Facebook), and the wider mental health issues I am observing from their preferred social networks and why.

The first thing everyone needs to understand is that the platforms the teens are largely on, and the way they use them, are decidedly different to how we adults use social media, and I actually don’t think many adults really get this. 

Analysts at the financial firm Piper Sandler issued a wide-ranging report ‘Taking Stock With Teens’ that surveyed teenagers about all aspects of their lives. According to them Snapchat is the most popular social media platform for teens, with 35 percent naming it their fave. TikTok is second with 30 per cent preferring it, with 22 per cent labelling Instagram their favourite platform. And I’d tend to believe this scale of preference.

So which mental health issues are emanating from these platforms for teens (in my humble opinion)?

Snapchat – a source of anxiety, exclusion & loneliness

Snapchat is a phone messaging application that allows you to send video or picture messages to one or more people at a time. The messages are only viewable for a few seconds at a time, as determined by the sender. 

However, there are ways of saving the images and videos using other phone functions such as screen record and screenshot or save on chat inside Snapchat. One of Snapchats big appeals to teens is its SnapMap feature – an interactive map you can use to share your location as a Bitmoji character with friends (and most do choose to share). See below an example shared by my son which showed all his friends heading to schoolies on the Gold Coast recently which made him want to jump in a car immediately and head down there early.

I have a theory that Snapchat is one of the bigger causes of anxiety in our teens and I have a few reasons for this. Snapchat is where they spend the most time communicating of all their networks. 

There are a few unspoken rules about how teens use the platform, all of which involve constant pressure to stay in contact with each other. For instance, it is a cardinal sin to ‘leave someone unread’ for any longer than 5 minutes. Or to open it and leave it unanswered. 

Teens know they can ‘half swipe now’ so they can read it but leave it unread and this is a way teens inflict pain on each other. Leaving someone unread is essentially ignoring someone, or as it is known in the offline world, ‘giving someone the silent treatment’. Even if the person leaving the other unread has a legitimate reason to do so i.e .is in hospital, has a family emergency, this unread status leaves the sender in a state of anxiety as to whether they have done something wrong and what they should do next to rectify it. We all know teens need constant validation and approval. This cuts them to their core.

Then on to another commonly used Snapchat feature, ‘Streaks’. A lot of the younger users of Snapchat will send a daily snap to their inner circle which can sometimes be quite a large circle of contacts and quite a large daily commitment in their lives. Snapchat gamified this feature long ago, and recognises / rewards 100 days of continuous daily streaks, thus implying to teens, that if you do this activity you must be a really good friend. 

I distinctly remember times when I have confiscated my son’s phone for poor behaviour and his main concern was ensuring he delegated the onerous task of ensuring his daily streaks were kept up to date whilst he was unable to access his phone. He got extremely anxious and upset if his streaks were to be broken. Seriously!

Between the Bitmojis and the anonymous usernames on Snapchat, it’s also quite easy for anyone to create a snapchat account and then to get busy targeting young people whether this be as a predator or with the intent to bully someone anonymously. 

Many immature teenagers have turned to Snapchat to share unkind words at a fellow teen, whether it be intentionally or unintentionally owing to their maturity levels, with parents of either side often completely unaware of this activity unless the teen, or their peers speak up. 

To counteract this, there have been some great initiatives like Aussie app Stymie who created an anonymous platform which empowers young people to ask for help when they need support, or if they are seeing or experiencing harm. Suicide ideation, discrimination, anxiety, depression, bullying, self-harm, physical fights, sexual assault, family violence and illegal activity are reported using Stymie, and are a way for adults be they teachers or parents to find out about an issue, without anyone being considered a ‘dobber’ which would be social suicide by any teen any other day of the week.

On the plus side Snapchat connects kids in a way no other generation has experienced before. When they’re at a loose end, they know their mates are at the beach and can head right on down there without so much of a word uttered between any parties, which surely plays into their ‘live in the moment’ approach to life, but can leave parents wondering how they can possibly leave their plan making to so last minute.

TikTok – an source of low self-esteem and self image issues

TikTok is a free social media app that lets you watch, create, and share videos — often to a soundtrack of the top hits in music – right from your phone. Like other social media apps, users can follow, like and comment on everything they see. TikTok has innovative video-editing features, viral dances, and celebrity cameos that make it incredibly popular.

Tiktok gained massive popularity in Australia in the lockdowns of 2020 due to COVID and due to boredom by both teens and adults, though it was gaining fast popularity prior to that. The bulk of TikTok users are 24 years and younger and engagement levels are extremely high. 

Many teens view Tiktok as an entertainment platform, but also as a creative and social outlet and escape if they make their own videos (though this is not required to use the app – you can be a pure observer). 

It’s also surprisingly a source of recipes, news, fitness tips and more, which my 14 year old daughter regularly uses it for. In fact she let me know that Kamala Harris was America’s first black, female vice president post the US elections last year, thanks to news she read on Tiktok!

Many teens use Tiktok as an escape to trivialise their lives as they can make their humble house or basic bedroom look like a movie set with some costumes, creative props and lighting, and they can use songs, and voice overs to express themselves. 

Many teens turn to Tiktok for inspiration too, so as a parent you should be aware of who your kids are following and what sort of sources of inspiration they are turning to. I believe Tiktok is a big source of self image issues with young teens due to the fact they are watching videos from skinny models spruiking diets and how to make your bum look better in tights, as well as muscled men with all the labels.

On the plus side Tiktok has given us a camera into the homes and lives of many people in our society teens would otherwise not know or understand such as people tortured by tourettes and struggling to make a simple recipe around their involuntary movements; single parents who blog their daily diaries – from the mundane to the magical; and proudly overweight Tiktokkers who encourage their followers to love the skin they’re in.

Instagram – a source of depression and envy

Instagram has been around longer (2010) than Snapchat (2011) and Tiktok (2016) and was bought out by Facebook in 2012 as a strategic play to capture a younger audience which has certainly worked.

Initially Instagram was the preferred platform of teens, but these days it has slipped down the list of preference and use, though definitely is still a daily activity for most teens. In essence it is a free image and video sharing service that is used on mobiles. You can follow brands, celebrities and businesses you are interested in, and you can have a public account or a private account where only friends you accept can see your posts. 

It’s considered cool with teens to have a lot of people following you and not many people you follow, just as celebrities do, but that involves a cut-throat approach of following and unfollowing to get your ratios right.

Most teens in my experience do set their profiles to private which shows they do have a sense of the dangers of social media, however they will by the same token share some posts publicly which may well be flaunting a fair bit of flesh as a young female; or risky behaviour by boys such as under-age alcohol and drug taking, doing dangerous acts in public such as parkour or skateboarding, or simply showing off their latest brands whether they own the clothing or not.

In essence, most teens use Instagram to create and share a ‘showreel’ of their life so is in many respects a place (whether you like it or not) that they start to define and redefine themselves as time goes on.

That is, the showreel they want you to see which in many cases may be pretty far from the truth. With all this showreel sharing, it’s easy to see why instagram is a great source of depression for teens, as they compare their bodies, their clothes, their experiences to their friends, and start to feel down about what they do, or don’t have. Double that down with ongoing effects of COVID which mean they wonder if they will ever get to move to another city to go to study, or travel overseas again with their family or as a young backpacker, and Instagram can leave them feeling pretty empty.

Instagram is also used by a lot of teens for private messaging. This may be to reply to a story you posted, or because you have not yet connected on Snapchat. 

In short Instagram is the gateway to a teenagers life, and if you are in their inner circle you will be added to their Snapchat once they feel more comfortable with who you are.

What about Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin etc.?

Whilst some teens may have a Facebook account to text their parents, participate in a work Facebook group or spy on family members; most teens spend very little time on Facebook and do not have an account on Twitter or Linkedin. 

They consider Facebook a platform for ‘parents and paedophiles’ and whilst they may have an account and appear at the party, they’re not really there. And by the way if they are displaying as green in messenger and you attempt to contact them while they are online, they may well actually be spending time on Instagram and not on Facebook, even though they appear to be online. 

And if they don’t feel like talking to you at the moment you message, forget it, they will simply jump off.

So with all this said and done, what needs to be done?

The fact of the matter is that whilst there may be some social media training of some kind offered during the school years, it’s token and feedback from the teens receiving it is that the people taking the training talk in general terms and don’t even know the networks they are talking about with any real familiarity, nor the issues the teens themselves are facing. It would be like someone receiving a sex education class from a virgin. You know they don’t know what they’re talking about, so it’s hard to take them seriously.

From what I can tell, no one is really guiding our teens on how to navigate this complex world they find themselves in, and whilst they love the anonymity of social media, they admit they all need a bit of help with it sometimes, whether that be a reliable adult to sit up and listen when they are struggling with something on social media and to take what they are saying seriously. This is often not just a ‘she is being mean to me,’ (though it sometimes is). This could be their inadvertent way of saying ‘I am not coping, I am becoming depressed/anxious/anorexic/can’t sleep/suicidal because of what is happening on social media and how I am receiving it.

Often teens are supporting their fellow teens, without the maturity or life experience to do so. 

Sometimes outside help needs to be brought in, in the form of counsellors, or for an adult to enforce time out from social media by deleting the apps, confiscating the phone, or ensuring the teen is open to ‘spot checks’ if they are the perpetrator. A line I often used with my teens was ‘if you are afraid to show me at any time what you are sharing on social media, we have a problem.’

Sometimes teens have the inner strength to delete certain social networks or all social networks for a time themselves, or just know it is time to turn it off, and focus on something in the offline world like go for a walk or watch a movie.

My take on it overall is that social media is not going away, no matter what new law Scomo or the next politician enforces, so like another thing which came into our lives in early 2020 beginning with C, we have to learn to live with it.   As a parent, carer or educator, as I said in my book back in 2014, it is our responsibility to help our teens navigate these at times plain sailing, and at other times treacherous teenage waters.

Health and exercise is important for wellbeing whether you are on social media or ot. So is eating well, fresh air, healthy relationships, water, being of service to your community and getting a good education. 

Social media platforms are our teens’ preferred way of connecting and sharing their lives. So learn a little. Pry a little. And take social media and mental health seriously.

We all owe it to our kids.