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What Message Is Social Media Sending Teens?

What Message Is Social Media Sending Teens?

Social media provides many benefits—but misuse can be dangerous to teens' mental health.

When Marshall McLuhan, the 1960s guru of communication, declared “the medium is the message,” he was talking about radio, TV, LP records, tape players and film. He probably never imagined Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, the Internet, digital everything—cameras, video, podcasts, TED talks, GIFs.

But he remains right about one thing: Whatever the message, the platform upon which it is delivered shapes the meaning and impact of the message it contains.

Today, in lieu of full sentences, we get abbreviated texts, full of LOLs and emojis. This raises the question: Do social media’s enormous benefits and pleasures compensate for—or pale in comparison to—the harm it does to individuals and relationships?

The benefits of social media are well-studied and real. They range from encouraging artistic expression among folks who might not have thought to give it a try, to the instant fact-checking of politicians and encouragement of democracy (The Arab Spring). In addition, social media allows easy access to the world’s best authorities on everything from medicine to rock climbing, the opportunity for friends and families to stay in touch more easily, for older folks or those who are more socially isolated to reconnect with friends or join support groups, and for people from around the globe to feel part of a community in which similarities are more important than differences.

And those are just some of the wonders of the digital age that are being enjoyed by around 3 billion people worldwide—about 40 percent of the total population.

But research keeps pointing out how harmful getting immersed in social media can become. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents to be aware of the potential damage social media can do to their child’s mental health because of cyberbullying and what they call “Facebook depression.”

Additional research shows girls age 10 who are active on social media are far more unhappy when they are adolescents than those who were not on social media at so early an age. While yet another study found 11- to 17-year-olds find the pressure to be online 24/7 destroys their sleep and can cause anxiety and depression. There’s even research published in JAMA that indicates for people who have no symptoms of ADHD, heavy use of social media may trigger the condition!

When you ask teens about the impact of social media on their lives, 24 percent say it’s mostly negative, 45 percent say it makes no difference and only 31 percent say it’s positive. And mature adults don’t escape potential harm—especially if they’re already having mental health issues, are worried about their work or social status or become addicted to building networks.

The solution? Stay connected, but not obsessed. One study found complete screen abstinence did not correlate with happiness either. The teens who were the happiest reported using digital media a bit under an hour a day. So . . .

  • Limit your (or your child’s) time with social media—not including email—to 30 to 60 minutes daily.
  • Delete any site on which you experience bullying, criticisms or other negative interactions.
  • Make your account private so you limit who can post comments, and who you consider a friend. Stick with those folks who are in fact friends or members of a community of like-minded participants.
  • No digital devices in the bedroom.

Social media is a tool, like a hammer that can build a beautifully crafted cabinet or a flimsy piece of junk. How it turns out is in your hands. Click wisely.

Medically reviewed in February 2020.

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