Limiting teens social media use can help their mental health

by Erica Peterson

The statistics surrounding child and teen depression and suicide are sobering.

A study published in the March Journal of Abnormal Psychology reported significant increases in mental health disorders among young Americans over the past decade. The rate of individuals reporting symptoms of major depression increased 52 percent from 2005 to 2017 in adolescents and 63 percent from 2009 to 2017 in those aged 18 to 25. From 2008 to 2017, there was also a 71 percent increase in young adults experiencing serious psychological distress and a 47 percent increase in the rate of young adults with suicidal thoughts, attempted suicide or suicide.

“There’s no denying the fact that there is an increasing frequency of depression, anxiety, and suicide among young adults,” said Dr. Steven Jewell, Lois C. Orr endowed chair of the division of pediatric psychiatry and psychology at Akron Children’s Hospital.

Research has not definitively linked it to the corresponding explosion in the use of social media and online communication, Jewell said. Such studies are still relatively preliminary.

However, there is plenty of evidence that shows social media can have an adverse effect on children and young adults, depending on how and why it is being used.

“Social media can be negative when it is a substitute for human contact,” Jewell said.

Kids often think communicating only online is the same as having a friendship. Jewell described a young man being treated for depression who talked about all the friends he had.

“But he’d never met them. He just talked to them online through games,” he said. “That’s not a good substitute for human contact.”

Emphasizing activities where kids are engaged in social interactions can help, Jewell said, whether that’s church activities and youth groups or extracurriculars at school. “Even going from playing video games alone to joining a video game group at school,” he said.

The amount of time spent on social media can be detrimental as well.

A study in the April Journal of Affective Disorders into the so-called “Facebook depression phenomenon” found that more time spent on and more frequent checking of social media sites were associated with higher levels of depression.

That’s because young people compare themselves to the often-unrealistic picture that such posts paint of their peers, Jewell said.

“Comparing oneself to what you see on Facebook or Snapchat can have a negative effect because you are only seeing the top-level, joyful, gleeful things going on in their lives,” he said.

Incessant checking of social media platforms can also increase anxiety and depression. Young people are often fueled by FOMO, or the fear of missing out, Jewell said.

“If you ask them to step back and limit their use of social media, that will often arouse anxiety. What if something really important happens to one of my friends and I don’t see it? I’ll be the odd one out,” he said.

But there is good research that shows reducing social media use and periodic “detoxes,” or eliminating all social media for a period of time, have positive outcomes, Jewell said.

He pointed to a study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology that found college students asked to limit their Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat use to 10 minutes per app, per day, “showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression” over those who did not limit their use. “Our findings strongly suggest that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being,” the study stated.

When should parents be concerned about the effect of social media on their child?

“The job responsibility of kids is threefold: peer relationships, family relationships and academic pursuits,” Jewell said. “If there is a significant problem in one area, or more than moderate problems in more than one area, that warrants a visit to the doctor.”