Whether you love it, loathe it or simply accept it, social media is part of life, especially for teens.

As the Principal of a school community, I have to deal with issues associated with social media use on a regular basis. They are often complex issues and there are typically no ‘right answers’ to draw on. Having said that, there is a growing body of research from which can be gleaned some principles for wise usage.

While social media is sometimes touted to combat loneliness, a significant body of research suggests it may have the opposite effect. By triggering comparison with others, it can raise doubts about self-worth, potentially leading to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. In this article, I will explore some of these troubling issues through a balanced lens.

Does social media impact how you feel?

Researchers haven’t yet been able to prove a direct causative relationship between social media and mental health. However, it seems more than a coincidence that rates of anxiety and depression in young people have risen concurrently with those of social media usage.

While social media may help to cultivate friendships and reduce loneliness, evidence suggests that excessive use negatively impacts self-esteem and life satisfaction. It’s also linked to an increase in mental health problems and suicidality (though not yet conclusively).

Rising rates of depression have coincided with the rise in smartphone use. A study published in 2017 in the journal Clinical Psychological Science looked at social media/smartphone usage, depression and suicide death rates in more than 500,000 US students in years 8 to 12. Between 2010 and 2015, they found a 33 per cent increase in the number of adolescents with high levels of depressive symptoms and 31 percent more died by suicide. The increase was driven almost exclusively by females.

The study’s lead author noted that the increase in depressive symptoms correlated with smartphone adoption over that period. There was also a corresponding jump in reports of students seeking assistance at counselling centres, mainly for depression and anxiety.

Conversely, those spending more time on non-screen activities (such as in-person social interaction, sporting activities, and attending religious services) were less likely to report mental health issues.

Another study, just released in JAMA Psychiatry, looked at social media usage in 6,595 adolescents. They found that adolescents spending more than three hours per day using social media may be at increased risk for mental health problems, especially internalising problems (suffering on the inside, including symptoms like anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, negative self-image, and loneliness).

Furthermore, social media overload may lead to problems with self-esteem, particularly in teenage girls. “Many girls are bombarded with their friends posting the most perfect pictures of themselves, or they’re following celebrities and influencers who do a lot of Photoshopping and have makeup and hair teams,” Dr Alexandra Hamlet, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, says in an article for Childmind.org “If that’s their model for what is normal, it can be very hard on their self-confidence.”

Another reason why depression is associated with social media might be what psychologists call displacement – which means what teenagers are not doing during time that’s displaced by social media. This includes mental health-boosting activities such as exercise, sleep and developing talents.

“If you’re spending a lot of time on your phone, you have less time for activities that can build confidence, a sense of achievement and connectedness,” Dr. Hamlet explains. “Yes, you get a little dopamine burst whenever you get a notification, or a like on a picture, or a follow request. But those things are addicting without being satisfying.”

Sleep and low self-esteem

One crucial thing that social media can displace is sleep. A recent study by paediatric researchers Scott, Biello and Woods involving almost 12,000 adolescents found that overall, heavier social media use was associated with poorer sleep patterns. Very high social media users, for example, were more likely than average users to report late sleep onset and wake times and trouble getting back to sleep after night-time waking.

The Child Mind Institute point out that lack of sleep can negatively affect teens’ mood, and ability to regulate emotions and get along with adults. Sleep and depression can become a vicious spiral, as lack of sleep leads to depression and vice versa.

Other research shows that 60 percent of adolescents check their phones in the hour before going to bed. On average, they got an hour less sleep than peers not using their phones pre-bedtime. The blue light from electronic screens is known to interfere with sleep and checking social media doesn’t coax the mind to relax.

Toxic social media breeds bad behaviour

Furthermore, social media can be a breeding ground for toxic behaviours. Some of these include:

  • Narcissism – social media may encourage self-obsession. You’ve no doubt seen people fixated on getting the perfect ‘selfie’ for their social accounts. Facebook, in particular, has reportedly caused what researchers call a context collapse, where users become locked into a single persona and “self-edit” what they share on social media to comply with this persona. However, self-absorption contrasts starkly with the attitude Christ calls us to – a selfless desire to place God first and love and serve others (Mark 12: 30-31).

The anonymity and distance afforded by the online environment can also embolden behaviours that people may not consider in face-to-face interactions. For example:

  • Lies – in their endeavours to portray a certain persona, people blatantly lie about their lives, or distort the truth. Others pretend to be someone else, sometimes by stealing identities.
  • Bullying – more than a third of young people are bullied online, according to a 2018 survey of 1,000 young people by mental health organisation ReachOut Australia. They also found that reported cyberbullying had doubled in 12 months among 14 to 16-year-olds.
  • Spying – social media is an easy platform for prying eyes. Maintaining privacy is an increasing concern. According to children’s digital safety organisation GuardChild, 39 percent of tweens and teens think their online activity is private from everyone. Twenty-four per cent of social media users reported they were not at all confident using privacy settings.
  • Stalking – cyberstalking is harassing behaviour using an online platform. It may include threats, cryptic messages and sexual innuendo, usually with a goal of creating fear or intimidation. For example, adult predators may create fake profiles, pretending to be a young person to befriend and gain the trust of young people online. An Australian Government Committee on Cybersafety found that young Australians appear unsure of what cyber-stalking involves.

‘Likes’ do not make you feel happier

While getting ‘likes’ on social media posts might give a short-lived high, studies have indicated they don’t make people happier.

A 2017 study by the British Psychological Society found that receiving likes didn’t make people feel any better about themselves or lift mood when they were down. Study author Dr Martin Graff said: “Although this is just a relatively small-scale study, the results indicate that the ways we interact with social media can affect how we feel and not always positively.”

Evaluate everything you share on social media

While much of what gets shared on social media seems harmless, it’s worth remembering that not everyone has good intentions. Social posts can make great fodder for internet trolls, cyber-bullies and, worse still, paedophiles. Much care should be taken.

It’s conceivable that your young person’s posts could get into the hands of the wrong people. A rash decision to post a revealing picture, for example, could lead to long-term regret when it turns up in a search by an employer.

In an attempt to keep our students safe online, ACC secondary students are educated on the responsible use of social media and technology. It is important that parents model responsible use in their homes too.

Positive habits to increase happiness and combat low self-esteem

Social media is unlikely to help your child develop self-worth. But there are proven things you can do for combatting low self-esteem and reducing the risk of anxiety and depression.

Do what you love

The Australian and New Zealand Mental Health Association note that doing enjoyable activities, like hobbies or sports, is associated with reduced stress and better psychological function. They explain that creative or engaging hobbies can have similar effects to exercise on the brain and mental health.

Helping others in your community

An overwhelming amount of evidence shows that contributing to the lives of others has many benefits. For example, volunteering can give you a sense of purpose, increase self-esteem, reduce stress, relieve symptoms of depression and combat loneliness. As Jesus pointed out, it’s more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).

Seek healthy friendships

Good friendships help to prevent loneliness and provide a sense of belonging and purpose. They are associated with higher levels of happiness and self-worth, and reduced stress and risk of depression. Youth Central have great advice about making friends.

Having a sense of meaning

Knowing that our lives have significance is crucial for self-worth. This unsurprising given that God created us for a purpose (Eph 2:10). This truth has been corroborated by research. For example, this 2015 study found that people who sensed they were part of something larger than themselves tended to behave more benevolently and generously towards others.

Exercise boosts happiness

The link between regular exercise and better mental health is well-established. Regular exercisers have greater emotional wellbeing and lower rates of mental illness. Exercise boosts mood, helps with sleep and aids learning, as well as improving physical health.

Watch what you eat

Numerous studies have shown that what you eat affects how you feel. It shouldn’t be surprising, given that feel-good chemicals are made by nerve cells. Healthy choices are like premium fuel for growing brains.

For further tips, PositivePsychology.com have a great list of self-esteem boosting worksheets, and this WikiHow post provides strategies for dealing with unhelpful beliefs and thoughts that may be contributing to poor self-worth.

In summary, I certainly don’t mean to portray social media as evil. However, I want to highlight the importance of moderation and raise awareness of risks. With youth depression and anxiety such a serious problem, a focus on positive ways to build healthy self-esteem is vital.

By ensuring your child uses social media in balance – as part of a lifestyle that includes activities like exercise, sleep, spending time with friends and serving others – your child has the best chance of becoming the godly young man or woman they were designed to be.