COMMENTARY

Social Media in the Lives of Adolescents

Susan D. Swick, MD; Michael S. Jellinek, MD

Disclosures

July 21, 2022

Adolescence is a time of growing autonomy fueled by puberty, intellectual development, and identity formation. Social media engages adolescents by giving them easy access to (semi) private communication with peers, the ability to safely explore their sexuality, and easily investigate issues of intellectual curiosity, as they move from childhood to older adolescence. Social media facilitates the creation of a teenager’s own world, separate and distinct from adult concern or scrutiny. It is clearly compelling for adolescents, but we are in the early days of understanding the effect of various types of digital activities on the health and well-being of youth. There is evidence that for some, the addictive potential of these applications is potent, exacerbating or triggering mood, anxiety, and eating disorder symptoms. Their drive to explore their identity and relationships and their immature capacity to regulate emotions and behaviors make the risks of overuse substantial. But it would be impossible (and probably socially very costly) to simply avoid social media. So how to discuss its healthy use with your patients and their parents?

The data

Social media are digital communication platforms that allow users to build a public profile and then accumulate a network of followers, and follow other users, based on shared interests. They include FaceBook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and Twitter. Surveys demonstrated that 90% of U.S. adolescents use social media, with 75% having at least one social media profile and over half visiting social media sites at least once daily. Adolescents spend over 7 hours daily on their phones, not including time devoted to online schoolwork, and 8- to 12-year-olds are not far behind at almost 5 hours of daily phone use. On average, 39% of adolescent screen time is spent on passive consumption, 26% on social media, 25% on interactive activities (browsing the web, interactive video gaming) and 3% on content creation (coding, etc). There was considerable variability in survey results, and differences between genders, with boys engaged in video games almost eight times as often as girls, and girls in social media nearly twice as often as boys.[1]

The research

There is a growing body of research devoted to understanding the effects of all of this digital activity on youth health and well-being.

Susan D. Swick, MD

A large, longitudinal study of Canadian 13- to 17-year-olds found that time spent on social media or watching television was strongly associated with depressive and anxiety symptoms, with a robust dose-response relationship.[2] However, causality is not clear, as anxious, shy, and depressed adolescents may use more social media as a consequence of their mood. Interestingly, there was no such relationship with mood and anxiety symptoms and time spent on video games.[3] For youth with depression and anxiety, time spent on social media has been strongly associated with increased levels of self-reported distress, self-injury and suicidality, but again, causality is hard to prove.

One very large study from the United Kingdom (including more than 10,000 participants), demonstrated a strong relationship between time spent on social media and severity of depressive symptoms, with a more pronounced effect in girls than in boys.[4] Many more nuanced studies have demonstrated that excessive time spent on social media, the presence of an addictive pattern of use, and the degree to which an adolescent’s sense of well-being is connected to social media are the variables that strongly predict an association with worsening depressive or anxiety symptoms.[5]

Several studies have demonstrated that low to moderate use of social media, and use to gather information and make plans were associated with better scores of emotional self-regulation and lower rates of depressive symptoms in teens.[6] It seems safe to say that social media can be useful and fun, but that too much can be bad for you. So help your adolescent patients to expand their perspective on its use by discussing it with them.

Make them curious about quantity

Most teens feel they do not have enough time for all of the things they need to do, so invite them to play detective by using their phone’s applications that can track their time spent online and in different apps.

Michael S. Jellinek, MD

Remind them that these apps were designed to be so engaging that for some addiction is a real problem. As with tobacco, addiction is the business model by which these companies earn advertising dollars. Indeed, adolescents are the target demographic, as they are most sensitive to social rewards and are the most valuable audience for advertisers. Engage their natural suspicion of authority by pointing out that with every hour on Insta, someone else is making a lot of money. They get to choose how they want to relax, connect with friends, and explore the world, so help them to be aware of how these apps are designed to keep them from choosing.

Raise awareness of vulnerability

Adolescents who have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder already have difficulty with impulse control and with shifting their attention to less engaging activities. Adolescents with anxiety are prone to avoid stressful situations, but still hunger for knowledge and connections. Adolescents with depression are managing low motivation and self-esteem, and the rewards of social media may keep them from exercise and actual social engagement that are critical to their treatment. Youth with eating disorders are especially prone to critical comparison of themselves to others, feeding their distorted body images. Help your patients with these common illnesses to be aware of how social media may make their treatment harder, rather than being the source of relief it may feel like.

Protect their health

For all young people, too much time spent in virtual activities and passive media consumption may not leave enough time to explore potential interests, talents, or relationships. These are important activities throughout life, but they are the central developmental tasks of adolescence. They also need 8-10 hours of sleep nightly and regular exercise. And of course, they have homework! Help them to think about how to use their time wisely to support satisfying relationships and activities, with time for relaxation and good health.

Keep parents in the room for these discussions

State that most of us have difficulty putting down our phones. Children and teens need adults who model striving for balance in all areas of choice. Just as we try to teach them to make good choices about food, getting excellent nutrition while still valuing taste and pleasure, we can talk about how to balance virtual activities with actual activities, work with play, and effort with relaxation. You can help expand your young patients’ self-awareness, acknowledge the fun and utility of their digital time, and enhance their sense of how we must all learn how to put screens down sometimes. In so doing, you can help families to ensure that they are engaging with the digital tools and toys available to all of us in ways that can support their health and well-being.

Dr. Swick is physician in chief at Ohana, Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Community Hospital of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula. Dr. Jellinek is professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston. Email them at pdnews@mdedge.com.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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