Spending time on social media than sleeping or at school.getty
According to the latest research by psychologist Jean Twenge, many teenage American girls now spend more time on social media than they do sleeping or at school. Twenge, who researches generational trends at San Diego State University, has been studying mental health metrics for teens for more than a decade and warns that a mental health crisis is looming.
She’s tracked how depression, anxiety and loneliness have risen, and warned in her new book Generations that social media remains a major factor. Twenge told NPR last month that the time spent on social media started to increase in 2009 as smartphones became more widespread.
Their data aligns with a Pew Research survey that found that by 2017, 85% of teens used social media on a daily basis; while over the past year, 95% of teens have been on the platforms, with a third saying their usage has been near constant.
Some other experts are now warning that this could be a serious problem if left unchecked.
“Because of this incredibly high use of social media, going forward we’re likely to see a significant portion of this generation facing a long-term mental health crisis,” said Dr. Leilani Carver, Director of Graduate and Undergraduate Communication and an Associate Professor of Strategic Communication and Leadership at Maryville University.
The crisis might even be here.
“In 2022, data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 60% of girls in grades 9 through 12 had experienced depressive symptoms in the past year,” Carver added. “Nearly one in three teenage girls said they had seriously considered suicide in the past year — a 60% increase from 10 years ago.”
The problem is that the teenage years are often a time of self-discovery and exploration, and heavy use of social media can disrupt the natural process of exploration and increase the act of comparison.
“Constantly looking at social media, including seeing comments, the number of likes and followers a person has, can evoke negative messages in a teenager’s brain. These messages can lead teenagers to support harmful practices and develop a distorted sense of personal worth to lower self-esteem,” noted Dr. Mallory Gary, assistant professor at the University of Tennessee’s online Master of Public Health program.
High or even constant use of social media appears to be correlated with the mental health crisis of teenage girls, but direct causality is difficult to prove as there are numerous factors to consider.
“The data are conflicting about the magnitude of the impact of social media use on student learning and academic performance,” Carver said.
Carver recommended parents look for ways to be more engaged with their teens, including finding ways to connect with them and help them develop their sense of purpose. Another way to counteract the overuse of social media by younger users could be to provide teenagers with plenty of opportunities to engage them in interesting activities.
“The challenge is finding ways to help teens connect their interests with activities that help them develop and improve skills that they believe will be helpful in their future endeavors” said Carver.
Social media isn’t all bad
It would also be too easy to jump to the conclusion that social media has no positive benefits, but again, this is far from the case.
“Social media in moderate doses can be fun and increase connection,” Gary said.
“Teens report that social media provides a deeper connection to their friends’ lives, allows them to express their creativity, offers support during difficult times, and makes them feel accepted,” Carver said.
There is also no one-size-fits-all approach to social media.
“It’s all about balance and knowing the individual. Social media use can negatively impact learning when students spend too much time on devices and neglect study and sleep,” said Stacie Pettit, associate professor of teacher education at Augusta University.
In most cases, teens don’t need 24/7 access to their devices; and the experts recommend that boundaries should be set to ensure teens get the sleep they need and have the opportunity to study without distractions.
“Social media has positive effects like social connections and opportunities for creative expression, and students need to learn skills to deal with temptations like excessive screen time,” Pettit said.
In many ways, the smartphone has just replaced the phone to which many teenagers seemed attached in the 1970s or 1980s. Social media is now part of our daily connection.
“Long term, these young women will find out who they are, who their friends are, what they value and who they love, largely through a screen. Tik Tok dances were one thing.”
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I’m a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. I covered the Detroit bankruptcy for Reuters in 2014 and currently I cover international affairs for 19FortyFive and cybersecurity for ClearanceJobs.
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