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How does social media affect teen health?

Depression and sleep problems may accompany heavy social

Depression and sleep problems may accompany heavy social media use. Credit: Dreamstime

When adolescent psychiatrist Drew Pate counsels patients or speaks to parenting groups, questions about social media use inevitably arise. Parents wonder whether their children’s constant use of Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat is healthy. Teenagers talk about the pressure to post the perfect photo or compete with the pristine lives their peers present on the internet.

“When you talk to parents and see kids in the office, we hear more and more about the potential damage being caused by social media outlets,” said Pate, who works for Sheppard Pratt Health System near Baltimore. “I think almost any adolescent who is involved in any social media has probably had some negative effect from it.”

Researchers and scientists still are trying to figure out how social media use affects young people. So far the evidence is mixed, and there’s no consensus on the long-term consequences of excessive social media use. Studies have shown the round-the-clock world of social media takes a mental and emotional toll on some young people. It has been linked to increased anxiety, depression and decreased relationship skills. One study found social media can be more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol for some people.

Social media can help, too

Social media also can have a positive effect, however. Some research has found that social media can be a resource for teens to find social support when they are struggling with life issues, and that they can use the different online platforms as a way to express themselves. Some teens are able to build friendships and relationships through the interaction they have with others on the internet.

A study published this year by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine with support from the National Institutes of Health found that the more time young adults spent on social media the more likely they were to have problems sleeping and experience symptoms of depression. Another study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that incidents of major depressive incidents have increased dramatically among teens, particularly among girls, and that cyberbullying may be playing a role.

Body image woes

At American University, researchers found a link between social media use and negative body image, which can lead to eating disorders. And in a recent survey of young people conducted by The Royal Society for Public Health in London, Instagram and Snapchat were found to be the worst for adolescents and their mental health.

The poll asked 1,479 people ages 14 to 24 to rate social media apps on issues such as body image and anxiety. The survey report said young women in particular are bombarded with edited images that mask people’s flaws and imperfections. “This practice is contributing to a generation of young people with body image and body confidence issues,” the report said.

The Royal Society listed several suggestions it says could ease the effects of social media on the emotional health of teenagers.

Sites like Instagram could highlight when people have digitally altered their image or post warnings about the dangers of too much social media use, the group said.

It also suggested that schools teach safe social media use and called for more studies to be conducted on how it affects the mental health of teenagers. Dr. Bankole Johnson, chairman of the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s department of psychiatry and director of its brain science consortium research unit, said social media-related emotional problems in teenagers are often detected when they have other problems, such as learning and behavioral difficulties.

Some teenagers might need to be weened off social media completely if it is causing intense emotional issues, Pate said. Others might need regulated or tightened security measures so they are only socializing with a select group of people. Parents can help by monitoring and limiting the amount of time their children spend on social media. “It boils down to what the kids can manage,” he said.

Representatives for Instagram and Snapchat did not respond to requests for comment.

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