Can Social Media Have Positive Effects on Mental Health?
Social media is an ingrained part of everyday life. Nearly all adolescents ages 13-17 (94%) say they’re online “almost constantly” or “several times a day.”
While social media can promote connection among teens, it also brings risks, like cyberbullying and engaging with accounts that promote eating disorders or self-harm. That’s why it’s so important for both providers and parents to help adolescents set healthy boundaries around social media use.
“Asking a teen not to be connected on social media is like asking them not to be connected to their peers,” says Alyssa Lucker, DO (she/her/hers), child and adolescent psychiatrist at Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center (ERC Pathlight). “But we can educate teens on how to engage in social media safely.”
What Does the Research Say?
Here’s what the research says about positive effects of social media on mental health: social media can create a healing space for community and connection, potential self-expression, social support and personal growth benefits.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, exposure to misinformation, divisiveness, violence and other mature content can cause significant harm to kids and teens. The impact of social media use in general—checking to see what friends, family and favorite businesses are doing or watching entertaining videos—is less clear.
“There isn’t a ton of longitudinal research to tell us cause and effect,” says Dr. Lucker. “We don’t know for sure, for example, if teens who spend more time on social media become more depressed, or if teens struggling with mental health issues are the ones who spend more time on social media.”
Talking with Teen About Social Media and Mental Health
Below are seven ways to help teens set boundaries and improve their relationship with social media.
1. Open the lines of communication.
The key is starting an open dialogue with teens centered around what they enjoy about social media and how they feel when they use it. “When you approach it with a curious mindset, you open up the space for real conversation,” says Sally Fleck, PhD (she/her/hers), clinical manager at ERC Pathlight.
2. Address safety and privacy concerns
Stress the importance of keeping personal information private, such as not sharing full names or addresses and turning off location-enabled services. Also, emphasize that your child can come to you immediately if they ever do feel unsafe on social media.
3. Set flexible boundaries.
Start small, with no phones at the dinner table or limiting screen time before bed. “If boundaries are too rigid—such as making teens disconnect totally—adolescents will get on their friends’ phones at school and engage in social media in a way that is secretive,” Dr. Fleck says.
4. Consider time limits.
Try 30-minute increments of social media use after school and go from there. “Set their phone to ping them once they’ve reached the limit as a reminder,” Dr. Fleck says. Resources like the American Academy of Pediatrics website have a family media plan that can help parents and providers set appropriate limits based on a variety of factors unique to each family.
5. Keep it real.
Remind adolescents that the images and personas they see others portray on social media are curated most of the time. “You’re only seeing what other people want to show you,” Dr. Lucker says. Because of this false reality created, social media can negatively affect a person’s self-perception.
6. Encourage a self-audit.
“Ask a teen to take a five-minute pause before and after each social media session and write down how they feel,” Dr. Lucker says. Doing so will help adolescents become more mindful about their social media use and how it impacts them. Parents can model healthy behaviors and conduct their own self-audits alongside teens.
7. Embrace a values-based approach.
“Help teenagers align their social media feed with what’s most important to them—family, friends, art, volunteering,” Dr. Fleck says. “This will help them develop an internal compass they can use to self-govern their social media use.”
Social Media Red Flags to Watch For
While every child responds differently, there are certain changes in behavior that can serve as red flags that a teen’s social media use has crossed over into unhealthy territory.
Changes to basic hygiene.
“If a teen who was showering daily and brushing their teeth twice a day is now slipping in their basic hygiene routine,” says Dr. Lucker, “it might indicate social media is impacting their day-to-day functioning.”
Sudden shift in mood and irritability.
While mood changes are common at this age, it is important to note if a teen is more moody or irritable during or after engaging with social media.
Pulling away from family.
Similarly, while it can be healthy for teens to seek independence, it is concerning if someone has abruptly stopped engaging in family activities or seems generally closed off from loved ones.
Defensive about social media use.
It is a significant red flag when teens clam up if you ask about social media. “If teens are mature enough to be on social media,” explains Dr. Lucker, “then they are mature enough to have a conversation with their parents about how they are using it.”
By following these tips, parents and providers can help adolescents engage in safe practices on social media while still gaining the sense of connection and belonging that they crave.
Partner Spotlight: Why Social Media is Only #HalfTheStory
When teens scroll through their social media feeds, they only see part of the picture—the part that people want to share with them. It’s a message that the not-for-profit organization #HalfTheStory shares through advocacy, community and education, including a four-week Social Media U course designed to help teens take control of their tech use. Scan the code to learn more.
Join a Mentally Healthy Community for Kids and Teens
Our Say It Brave online community offers a safe and inclusive space for kids and teens to foster connection, access resources and help end mental health stigma. Check out upcoming events featuring recovery advocates leading candid, crucial conversations about mental health.
1. Pew Research Center. (2022). Teens, social media and technology
2. Riehm, K.E., Feder, K.A., Tormohlen, K.N., Crum, R.M., Young, A.S., Green, K.M., Pacek, L.R., La Flair, L.N., & Mojtabai, R. (2019). Associations between time spent using social media and internalizing and externalizing problems among US youth. JAMA Psychiatry, 76(12), 1266-1273
This article first appeared in Luminary, A Magazine for Mental Health Professionals. Find more articles for additional tips, resources and insights from leading experts in the field.