Michigan Association of Health Plans

Social Media and Youth Mental Health: How to Find Balance After Pandemic Spikes in Use

This story appeared in Healthline. Read more here

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 90 percent of U.S. teens ages 13–17 use or have used social media.

They’re also using it more frequently.

According to 2020 data from Statista, 63 percent of U.S. parents reported that their teens used more social media than they did before the pandemic.

This rise of social media use in young people coincides with a rise in mental health concerns. Many health experts are calling it a second pandemic.

For instance, according to Mental Health America (MHA), the number of youth who experienced a major depressive episode in 2021 increased by 206,000 from the previous year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide attempts among U.S. adolescents increased by 31 percent from 2019 to 2020, and emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts in 2021 were 51 percent higher among girls ages 12–17 than during the same period in 2019.

The upside of social media

“Social media use increased during the pandemic for many young people,” explains Jaclyn Halpern, PsyD, director of the SOAR program at Washington Behavioral Medicine Associates. “In many cases, it became the primary source of social connection for tweens and teens who were otherwise unable to socialize with their friends.”

In this sense, social media benefitted young people by connecting them to their real-life social groups in a time of isolation.

Isolation can take a toll on mental, emotional, and physical health.

According to a 2017 review, researchers found a significant association between social isolation and loneliness, noting a negative correlation with cardiovascular and mental health outcomes.

During the pandemic, social media became the only way to stay in touch with friends and maintain a social circle for many young people.

In this sense, it acted as a mental and emotional lifeline.

“There are absolutely benefits to social media use,” says Halpern. “It can reduce feelings of social isolation and allow tweens and teens to feel connected to their peers.”

Halpern notes that social media can have multiple benefits for young people “all of which can be empowering, entertaining, and social.”

These include:

  • Connecting to others with similar interests
  • Learning about new topics and hobbies
  • Building identity
  • Encouraging social and political engagement
  • Learning about others
  • Researchers found a significant association between social isolation, loneliness, and negative cardiovascular and mental health outcomes.

The downside of social media

Ironically, social media use may be helping and hurting at the same time.

“While [it] helped to prevent full isolation for many young people, increased social media may also have negatively impacted their mental and physical health,” Halpern says.

Even before the pandemic, evidence suggested that social media may have negative effects on mental health.

For instance, a 2015 study found that U.K. children who used social networking sites for 3 hours or more on a school day were twice as likely to report high or very high scores for mental ill-health.

Studies done during the pandemic tell a more nuanced story.

A 2020 study analyzing 86,581,237 English-language Twitter posts found that there was a significant increase in social media use as stay-at-home mandates went into effect. The findings suggested that social media was being used as a coping mechanism to combat feelings of isolation related to long-term physical distancing.

But was it working?

While people may reach for their phones to cope with negative feelings in the short term, the study noted that social media use may increase negative feelings in the long term.

It turns out that it’s not just social media but the way it’s used and how much.

A 2022 cross-national online survey of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Norway found that using social media for entertainment or to decrease loneliness during the pandemic was associated with poorer mental health. On the other hand, using social media for personal contact and maintaining relationships was associated with better mental health.

Still, the study found that increased daily time on social media was associated with poorer mental health overall.

These findings suggest that many people, including youth, turn to social media in difficult times. Unfortunately, depending on how it’s used and how often, social media may actually make matters worse.

“Social media also comes with lots of risks,” says Halpern

These include:

  • Fear of missing out (FOMO)
  • Exposure to inappropriate, upsetting, or even traumatic content
  • Access to inaccurate information
  • Exposure to online predators
  • Exposure to cyberbullying

Social media can also lead to feelings of pressure to present a perfect version of yourself.

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