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“A growing body of evidence shows that social media and immersion in the digital world can be contributing factors in the development of an array of psychological problems – from addiction to depression – and young people may be especially vulnerable.” -Nicholas Kardaras (2016, p. 66)

There’s little doubt that social media is exacerbating mental health problems in children and teens, if not creating them outright. Social media use (and screen time in general) consistently shows up as a potent risk factor for psychological problems in youth. “Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy,” says sociologist Jean Twenge, who studies teen development. “There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.” (Twenge, 2017)

Of course, to say that social media is “all bad” wouldn’t be accurate either. The truth is a bit more nuanced than that. For some youth, social media can be an important lifeline, especially if they are struggling at home or “IRL.” For some it may provide the only meaningful sense of connection they have. There’s also some debate about the extent to which social media is causing mental health problems, and how much of this correlation is because youth with pre-existing mental health problems spend more time in cyberspace on social media sites. But whatever the ultimate answer might be, it’s quite clear that increased social media and internet use goes hand in hand with an increase in child mental health problems.

Why social media is causing psychological problems in children

There are many ways social media is contributing to the mental health problems we’re seeing among youth today:

  • It provides a form of interaction with the world that is shallow and often devoid of meaning or fulfillment. So when young people spend too much time in cyberspace, it can leave them struggling with feelings of discontent.

  • Social media promotes an unhealthy fixation on the self, especially as it relates to one’s appearance and popularity. As Stephen Marche notes, “Facebook imprisons us in the business of self-promotion.” (Marche, 2012) Such an inward focus and preoccupation with the self consistently shows up as a risk factor for mental illness, while an outward focus and concern for others hedges against it. So the primary focus on social media sites is to engage in the type of activities we’ve long known lead to declining mental heath.

  • Social media replaces in-person connection with interaction through a screen. “These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time,” says Sherry Turkle, a professor of computer culture and author of Alone Together. Unfortunately, “the ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy.” (ibid)

  • People are meaner online than they are in face-to-face interaction, so social media can contribute to what psychologists refer to as the ‘mean-world syndrome,” where media exposure to conflict and hostility causes people to develop a more disparaging view of the world.

  • Social media is where people go to post carefully curated images of themselves that often present unrealistic ideals, prompting youth into making negative comparisons that lower their self-esteem. It’s a double-edged sword: spending a lot of time on social media soaking up the seemingly “perfect” lives of others makes kids feel like they’re inadequate and could never measure up. Ironically, when they engage in such self-promotion themselves, they often feel like frauds, because we’re all more familiar with our own struggles, insecurities and shortcomings than we are those in others. So we take what others present to us at face value while feeling ourselves to be an imposter.

  • Social media tends to make kids anxious. They wind up constantly checking their profiles and posts for any update, monitoring likes and comments, their psychology lifting with each validation and crashing with every disapproval or sign of lack of engagement.

  • Social media algorithms are designed to promote engagement, and what’s engaging is usually the opposite of what’s psychologically healthy.

  • Social media can expose kids to bigotry, cyberbullying, and unhealthy role models who provide a template for mental illness.

Why screen time in general is causing mental health problems in children
It isn’t just social media contributing to the mental health decline we’re seeing among America’s youth. Screen time in general has an adverse effect on mental health:

  • Screen time is crowding out healthier activities. The more time kids spend in front of a screen, the less time they have for those activities that are truly meaningful.

  • Technology use can interfere with sleep, especially when used late at night, and inadequate sleep is linked to declines in mental health.

Too much technology use can weaken family bonds or create parent-child conflict, both of which are risk factors for mental illness.

How social media is harming children’s mental health

It’s no secret that Facebook and other social media sites are driving a decline in mental health. Just ask some of their founding members. Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, has come to be a vocal critic of the site he helped launch, calling it a dangerous form of psychological manipulation, saying, ‘God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” (Read & Wallace-Wells, 2018) Tim Kendall, who was an early architect of Facebook’s’ business model, ended up deleting the Facebook app from his own phone. “I felt bad about myself,” he says. ‘I felt inadequate. I felt like most people had better lives than I did on every dimension.” (Koh, 2018)

“Studies have found that time spent on social media – particularly photo-based platforms – is associated with poorer self-esteem,” says psychologist Jennifer Webb. Ph.D. When teens, and especially girls, spend too much time on social media comparing themselves to others, they emerge feeling worse about themselves. “Lurking” (perusing profiles without interacting) is especially detrimental. (Dreisbach, 2017)

“Facebook is supposed to build empathy,” notes Lev Grossman, “but since 2000, Americans have scored higher and higher on psychological tests designed to detect narcissism, and psychologists have suggested a link to social networking.” (Grossman, 2010) This is likely a result of the way social media sites promote self-absorption and self-promotion on superficial aspects like beauty or status.

Rates of loneliness have also been skyrocketing in recent years, and the highest rate climbs have been documented in the younger generations. (Sasse, 2018) An experiment by neuroscientist John Cacioppo leaves little dispute about one of the cases: “The greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are. The greater the proportion of online interactions, the lonelier you are.” (Marche, 2012, p. 68)

A 2014 study by psychologists Christina Sagioglou and Tobias Greitemeyer found that people often feel down after Facebook sessions since they feel their time spent on the site was not meaningful. (Kardaras, 2016) Another 2014 study of 180 college students by Mai-Ly Steers and her colleagues found that the more time people spent on Facebook, the more likely they were to have symptoms of depression. (Steers et al., 2014) As Nicholas Kardaras reports, “the more ‘friends’ one has on Facebook, the higher the likelihood of depression,” possibly because more friends = more time spent trying to maintain this following. This link between social media use and depression is so pronounced that psychologists have dubbed it “The Facebook effect.”

Not surprisingly, a study dubbed the Facebook experiment found that when people took a 7 day break from the site, they reported a significant boost in happiness compared to those who stayed online. (Dreisbach, 2017) Another study randomly assigned Penn State undergraduates to a group that limited Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat usage to 10 minutes per day for 3 weeks. At the end of the 3 weeks, those who limited their social media exposure saw noticeable improvements in the 7 psychological categories studied, such as anxiety, depression and fear of missing out. (Cohen, 3-11-2019)

Facebook has long known they have the power to alter user’s moods. In 2014 they conducted an internal study that turned 700,000 of their own users into guinea pigs without their knowledge or consent. These people were then fed more depressive content in their news feeds to see if it would have an effect on their mental health. It most certainly did, and the company found it could successfully manipulate its user’s emotions, making them happier, sadder, or angrier by adjusting the posts they were delivered.

Unfortunately, the monetary incentives for Facebook and other social media sites tends to directly contradict what’s healthy for their users. “The goal of Facebook’s AI, as the company’s engineers have essentially admitted, is to keep us on the site for as long as possible,” writes Ava Kofman. “To do so, it shows us content that resembles whatever most engaged us in the past: usually, what has made us angry, fearful, outraged, or some combination of the three.” (Kofman, 2019)

Parents might be shocked to learn that Facebook even touts its ability to manipulate teens’ mental health to marketers looking to capitalize on their insecurities. “A recently leaked Facebook document indicated that the company had been touting to advertisers its ability to determine teens’ emotional state based on their on-site behavior, and even to pinpoint ‘moments when young people need a confidence boost.'” (Twenge, 2017)

Another problem, according to Roger McNamee, a silicon valley tycoon and early investor in Facebook, is that “Facebook’s algorithms give users what they want, so each person’s News Feed becomes a unique reality, a filter bubble that creates the illusion that most people the user knows believe the same things.” (McNamee, 2019) Over time this can have the effect of making its users more narrow-minded and intolerant, and thus more fragile, less capable of handling alternate viewpoint, all of which increase the odds that they’ll find it difficult to cope with everyday life.

Social media can also provide models for psychological illness. For example, doctors have been seeing a massive increase in teenage girls who suddenly developed tic dis_rder symptoms after watching Tic Tok “influencers” who claimed to have Tourette’s or other tic disorders. (The Week, 10-29-2021, p. 20) V_ctim p_rn is widespread on social media, encouraging a type of narcissistic obsession with trauma and promoting the type of victimology that is typically more harmful than the trauma itself. There are also plenty of groups glorifying and encouraging unhealthy behaviors, fueling an increase in things like gender dysmorphia, eating d_sordes or self-h_rm.

In late 2007, Facebook finally admitted that the research showing social media use to be harmful to one’s mental health is accurate. What was their response? Borrowing a mantra from the g_n lobby, which promotes the ludicrous idea that the solution to g_n violence is more g_ns, “Facebook said the solution to the mental malaise was more Facebook,” reports Deepa Seetharaman (2017). That’s the perversity of capitalist incentives at work: Instead of fixing the problem or focusing on human interests, monetary incentives leave those in a position of power pushing to double-down on the product that’s causing the problem in the first place.

Managing the mental health risks from social media

So what are parents to do with this information? Here are some recommendations:

1. Don’t freak out and ban kids from social media

You shouldn’t turn into a technology Nazi and try to ban social media or internet use outright. First, such an approach is ineffective: Teens usually find ways to get around your restriction, and it only elevates the appeal of that which you have made off-limits. But more importantly, social media, for better or worse, has become an integral part of young people’s lives. Taking it way completely or trying to de-plug youth from cyberspace can be just as destructive as any of the dangers posed by social media, especially if a youth is already struggling. You don’t want to further destabilize them by cutting them off from their social network and causing a huge family blowout in the process.

2. Discussing the hazards of social media use

Regularly talk with your child about these concerns. Make it an ongoing family conversation. Talk about how social media algorithms are designed to be addictive, tricking people into wasting time on the site. Talk about how Facebook itself acknowledges its product is bad for people’s psychological health, or how many of its founding members have dumped the app and won’t let their children use it. Talk about all the ways technology use is interfering with our lives. Don’t come at them like a freight train or with any particular agenda in mind, just talk. The more your child understands the perils of social media and why you want to limit their use, the more inclined they’ll be to work with you, not against you.

3. Reduce screen time quantity and focus on quality

Find out why your child enjoys spending time online and what they’re doing in cyberspace. Consider having them make a list of what’s most important in term of entertainment or staying connected. Then look to reduce some of the non-essential and unhealthy or wasteful activities (lurking, trying to gain followers, constantly checking updates, etc.) and focus on quality over quantity.

4. Crowd out social media use

Look to limit their use by addition, not subtraction: work with your child to find meaningful hobbies and real-world activities that will naturally crowd out screen time. One of the biggest hurdles in reducing screen time is that it’s the easiest default activity kids can turn to when they’re bored and nothing else is going on. The more you can keep your child involved in productive, appealing, real-world experiences, the less inclined they’ll be to want to waste time in cyberspace.

5. Try to cut back on anxious behaviors

If a child is sleeping with their phone, or constantly checking for updates throughout the day, or checking it immediately when they get up or before they go to bed, these are signs of an unhealthy preoccupation. Unless you’re trying to coordinate some outing in real-time, there’s no reason to be constantly monitoring accounts in the same way a stockbroker follows changing stock prices. Curbing such addictive habits will go a long way towards protecting your child’s mental health. Just like homework or meal times, try to keep social media contained within certain allotments so that it doesn’t take over their life.


Seetharaman, D. (2017, Dec. 16) “Facebook concedes to effects on mental health,” Wall Street Journal, B4

Marche, S. (2012) “Is Facebook making us lonely?” The Atlantic, May, pp. 60-69

Read, M., Wallace-Wells, D. (2018) “The internet apologizer,” New York Magazine, pp. 26-34

McNamee, R. (2019) “I helped create this mess. Here’s how to fix it,” Time, Jan. 28

Sasse, B. (2018) Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How To Heal. St. Martin’s Press

Dreisbach, S. (2017) “50 states of women,” Glamour, Sept., pp. 145-160

Grossman, L. (2010) “2010 person of the year: Mark Zuckerberg,” Time, Dec. 27, p. 72

Kardaras, N. (2016) Generation Z: Online and at risk,” Scientific American Mind, Sept./Oct, pp. 64-69

Koh, Y. (2018, Nov. 13) “Social media enters its awkward adolescence,” Wall Street Journal, R8

Twenge, J.M. (2017) “Has the smartphone destroyed a generation?” The Atlantic, Sept., pp. 58-65

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