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Social Media Use and Depression in Teens
Aubrey Clark
Canisius College?
Social Media Use and Depression in Teens
The use of social media websites has been linked to increased symptoms of depression
in teens. Some of these symptoms include, but are not limited to, feeling of sadness, loss of interest in normal activities, sleep disturbances, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts (Mayo Clinic, 2018). Social media has become a large part of modern culture and continues to have an impact on the lives of those who are “connected.” This impact goes beyond simply keeping family and
friends in touch, especially for the younger population. There has been much debate about the effects of excessive social media use, and many people do not want to think that they may be engaging in harmful behavior online. The research on this topic can definitely seem alarming to a nation of who live in a society that is so heavily dominated by the internet and social networks. Ninety-four percent of American teens are members of at least one social network (Weinstein, 2017). Most teens who have internet access, also have accounts with social networks. Some examples of popular social networks are Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. YouTube is also known for its online community, though it is primarily a video-sharing website. Research has found a positive correlation between certain types of social media use and depression symptoms, when observing users between twelve and seventeen years old (Nesi & Prinstein, 2015). This phenomenon is largely due to the way social media websites are being used by younger individuals. It is not just a matter of how much time is spent on these websites, but how the time is spent.
Not every interaction a person has on social media websites is problematic. A study by Radovic, Gmelin, Stein, and Miller (2017) describes the difference between positive and negative uses of social media. “Positive use included searching for positive content (i.e. for entertainment, humor, content creation) or for social connection. Negative use included sharing risky behaviors, cyberbullying, and for making self-denigrating comparisons with others” (Radovic et al., 2017). Social media is commonly praised for its positive uses, but teens often participate in the negative side of it.
Teenagers are self-conscious beings who are very impressionable (Wong, Hall,
Justice, & Hernandez, 2015). This is due to the development of identity during this particular stage of life (Weinstein, 2017). Because of this, they are more likely to engage in self-denigrating comparisons when using social network websites. They may become very self-critical after seeing a peer share something positive. This is a natural part of the development of identity during this particular stage of life, but it becomes excessive when social networks provide a seemingly-endless supply of images for people to compare themselves to (Weinstein, 2017). In one study, a participant reported “Sometimes I still go on Twitter when I’m upset because I just want to see what’s going on, but mostly I just get jealous of other people’s lives” (Radovic et al., 2017). This is an example of how positive intentions can still lead to negative uses of social networks. A large portion of teens may not even be aware of how much they are being affected by what they do online.
When teens engage in negative comparison online, it carries over into their lives away from the screen. Emily Weinstein (2017) conducted a study to better understand how psychological well-being is affected by these negative comparisons that teenagers make on
social media. Using an Instagram browsing simulation with over five-hundred high school students, Weinstein discovered that teens who reported more cases of negative social comparison had elevated rates of negative affect, even after browsing (Weinstein, 2017). This means that some teens may be logging off their devices in a worse mood than they were in when they logged on. It ultimately depends on their tendency to compare themselves to their peers. This study also showed that females were more likely to engage in this type of online behavior than males (Weinstein, 2017). Young girls can unintentionally compromise their psychological well-being by spending too much time passively viewing the posts of their peers on social media websites. This is a problem that already occurs in real-life situations at school, so continuing to engage in negative peer comparisons at home can cause teens to have little relief from these negative feelings.
Another negative use of social media is cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is unfortunately a common practice on social network websites, especially amongst the teenage population. According to Alison Knopf (2015), twenty percent of American teens were victims of cyberbullying during the year 2014. That only includes the reported cases, which could mean that the actual percentage is higher. Cyberbullying is also typically only recorded when it has become a repeated offense (Bauman, Toomey, & Walker, 2013). So, there are likely to be a lot of instances that were left out of the data because teens only reported the act of aggression once. Similar to negative social comparisons, cyberbullying victims seem to be more prominent amongst female teens (Wong et al., 2015). However, it was found that male teens were more than three times more likely to be perpetrators of cyberbullying than females (Bauman et al., 2013).
Bullying is linked to many mental health problems, including depression, self-harm, and suicidal ideation (Knopf, 2015). Although it may seem less hazardous to some people, cyberbullying is no less harmful in how it affects the mental health of young people (Knopf 2015). Some researchers have speculated that cyberbullying may even have the potential to be more harmful than traditional bullying methods due to the nature of the internet (Selkie, Fales, & Moreno, 2016). This is because traditional bullying methods have some limitations that do not affect the acts of cyberbullying. Social networks provide anonymity for perpetrators of cyberbullying and a seemingly-unlimited audience (Selkie et al., 2016). Traditional bullying is more likely to be noticed and prevented by adults than cyberbullying, which often goes unnoticed by parents and teachers (Selkie et al., 2016). There are many parents who do not even have accounts on social networks, let alone monitor their child’s use of theirs. There are also a lot of teens who have accounts on websites that their parents do not know of. The internet is quite a different environment than real life and identities are easy to hide.
Symptoms of depression are unsurprisingly linked to cyberbullying (Bauman et al., 2013). However, the victims of cyberbullying are not the only ones who suffer from psychological distress. Bauman et al. (2013) concluded that cyberbullying was linked to increased depression symptoms, including suicidal thoughts, in both the victims and the perpetrators. This is something that deserves more publicity. Bullies are usually viewed in a very negative light, with little concern for their psychological well-being. It is clear that there is more to the cyberbullying relationship than meets the eye.
While some may argue that teens can “block” others on social networks and simply stop using certain networks altogether to avoid cyberbullying, it does not always feel so simple for them. With ninety-four percent of teens staying connected through social media, removing oneself completely may cause them to feel isolated even further. Despite the harassment some young people face online, many chose not to remove their social media accounts. It is a complicated issue that continues to plague young people across the nation. One study measured a factor called FOMO (the fear of missing out) which is prevalent in teens (Oberst, Wegmann, Stodt, Brand, & Chamarro, 2017). The fear of missing out plays a role in peer pressure, which is
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something that teens also experience on social networks (Oberst et al., 2017). According to Oberst et al. (2017), the fear of missing out motivates people to spend more time on social media. It was discovered that individuals with higher FOMO were more likely to engage in negative or maladaptive social media use (Oberst et al., 2017).
Self-esteem is something that many teens struggle with. Research by Lee & Cheung (2014) revealed that those who spent more time interacting with online friends than real life friends showed lower levels of self-esteem. However, other studies look more into the details of how types of social media use and self-esteem work together in the lives of teens. The effects social networks have on self-esteem can vary depending on the type of feedback an individual receives. A participant from the study by Radovic et al. (2017) described her experience with “likes” on social networks: “when you get all those likes and everything, that’s going to make you feel good, but then the second you don’t get . . . 16 likes on your picture, that’s going to make you feel bad.” Just like this participant, many other teens rely on “likes” and feedback from online friends to regulate their self-esteem. Because of this, someone who is used to getting
a lot of positive feedback on social media can become more sensitive to negative feedback online.
Teens are spending quite a lot of their time logged into social networks. According to Nesi and Prinstein (2015), “The average young person now spends approximately seven hours a day connected to electronic media” (p. 1428). That may sound excessive, but it is common for today’s teens to spend a large portion of their day glued to their electronic devices. They are constantly engaging with their online social worlds throughout the entire day. When it comes
to use of social media in the evening, this can have a negative impact on sleep. In previous years, lying down in bed typically sent the message to the brain that it was time to rest (Exelmans ; Van den Bulck, 2017). However, today’s teens are delaying the time that shuteye occurs after they crawl into their beds in order to interact with friends online (Exelmans & Van den Bulck, 2017).
This is creating a divide between “bedtime” and “sleep,” which were once synonymous terms. Not only are teens spending less time trying to go to sleep, but the increase in bedtime without sleep is resulting in poorer quality of sleep (Exelmans & Van den Bulck, 2017). According to a study conducted by Exelmans & Van den Bulck (2017), delaying shuteye by just thirty minutes made participants three times more likely to be classified as a poor sleeper. Teens are not only sleeping less, but the sleep they do get is just not as good. Their online worlds are taking a toll on their actual lives.
What does this mean for the psychological well-being of teens? Sleep is obviously an important activity for a healthy state of mind. Saunders, Fernandez-Mendoza, Kamali, Assari, and McInnis (2015) took a closer look at the effect of poor sleep quality on mood. They discovered that a poorer quality of sleep is linked to a worse mood outcome, particularly in
women (Saunders et al., 2015). Another study looked at the effects of both sleep quality and duration on teens (Short & Wright 2013). The results showed that there is indeed a strong connection between quality of sleep and mood in teens (Short & Wright 2013). Participants also showed lower levels of alertness after poor sleep, which was associated with higher levels of depression symptoms (Short & Wright 2013). Along with diminished alertness and symptoms
of depression, students reported poorer academic performance (Short & Wright 2013). Surprisingly, sleep duration actually did not play as big of a role in diminished functioning as quality of sleep (Short & Wright 2013). This could be due to the fact that not all individuals have
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the same exact needs when it comes to number of hours of sleep (Short & Wright 2013). Some people do fine on seven hours of sleep, while others need nine to feel rested. Sleep quality does remain an important factor in teenage mental health, though. The overuse of social media, and electronics in general, are causing young people to have more nights filled with a poor quality of sleep. This, in turn, is contributing to the recent trend of increased depression symptoms in teenagers.
Becoming more connected as a society clearly has both pros and cons. It allows people to stay in touch that might not normally be able to. The fault in social networks truly lies within the flaws of people themselves. Social media users are ultimately in control of how they interact with the online world but at times it may not feel that way, especially for teens who face cyberbullying. Most problems that teens encounter through social media are common problems that they face in the real world. However, the nature of social networks and the internet can make a normal problem into something more extreme. With the world at their fingertips, teens can get themselves into a lot of trouble. The internet is barely a regulated environment at all when compared to a classroom setting. The smallest mistake or hiccup can go viral overnight. Not only this, but teens are especially vulnerable to the negative side of social media. They are in a very emotional and confusing point of their lives and are more susceptible to things like negative comparisons to their peers and bullying, whether they become the victim or the perpetrator. These problems play a role in the connection between social media use and teenage depression. On top of all of this, increased use of social networks is causing teenagers to miss out on good quality sleep, which plays a role in mood regulation. With all of this going on, it is not a wonder why teens who engage in the negative sides of social media are experiencing a greater deal of
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depression symptoms. Social networks are not necessarily evil, but users should be careful how they interact with others on the internet. Perhaps, as technology advances even further, social media will become a less hostile environment for some teens.
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References
Bauman, S., Toomey, R. B., & Walker, J. L. (2013). Associations among bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide in high school students. Journal of Adolescence, 36(2), 341-350. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2012.12.001
Corey, G. (2017). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Exelmans, L., & Van den Bulck, J. (2017). Bedtime, shuteye time and electronic media: Sleep displacement is a two-step process. Journal of Sleep Research, 26(3), 364-370. doi:10.1111/jsr.12510
Knopf, A. (2015). Cyberbullying linked to mental health problems in teens; protective factor seen in family dinners. The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, 31(1), 4-5. doi:10.1002/cbl.30012
Lee, Z. W., & Cheung, C. M. (2014). Problematic Use of Social Networking Sites: The Role of Self-Esteem. International Journal of Business and Information, 9(2), 143-159.
Mayo Clinic (2018, February 03). Depression (major depressive disorder). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/symptoms-causes/syc- 20356007
Nesi, J., & Prinstein, M. J. (2015). Using Social Media for Social Comparison and Feedback-Seeking: Gender and Popularity Moderate Associations with Depressive Symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 43(8), 1427-1438. doi:10.1007/ s10802-015-0020-0
Oberst, U., Wegmann, E., Stodt, B., Brand, M., & Chamarro, A. (2017). Negative consequences from heavy social networking in adolescents: The mediating role of fear of missing out. Journal of Adolescence, 55, 51-60. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.12.008
Radovic, A., Gmelin, T., Stein, B. D., & Miller, E. (2017). Depressed adolescents positive and negative use of social media. Journal of Adolescence, 55, 5-15. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence .2016.12.002
Saunders, E. F., Fernandez-Mendoza, J., Kamali, M., Assari, S., & McInnis, M. G. (2015). Corrigendum: The effect of poor sleep quality on mood outcome differs between men and women: A longitudinal study of bipolar disorder. Journal of Affective Disorders, 185, 246. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2015.05.050
Selkie, E. M., Fales, J. L., & Moreno, M. A. (2016). Cyberbullying Prevalence Among US Middle and High School–Aged Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Quality Assessment. Journal of Adolescent Health, 58(2), 125-133. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth. 2015.09.026
Short, M. A., Gradisar, M., Lack, L. C., & Wright, H. R. (2013). The impact of sleep on adolescent depressed mood, alertness and academic performance. Journal of Adolescence, 36(6), 1025-1033. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2013.08.007
Wong, D. W., Hall, K. R., Justice, C. A., & Hernandez, L. W. (2015). Counseling individuals through the lifespan. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

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