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How Does Social Media Affect Teen Mental health?

High school is when social comparison really takes hold, and it never quite goes away as people grow into adulthood. Social norms are the unwritten rules of society that differ from culture to culture, and make up what’s seen as normal, acceptable, respectful behavior.

Social comparison comes in many forms. Basically, whenever people gather, we have a tendency to compare ourselves to others. Social media has taken social comparison to a whole new level in the last several years. We see who is doing what, and we may become stressed wondering if we’re doing enough, earning enough, enjoying life enough. We compare our regular lives with other people’s curated best memories. We don’t know whether they’re just posting their highlights and their best photos out of dozens, or if they’re really sharing casual and spontaneous events as they happen. Missing experiences can create anxiety and depression. When people look online and see they’re excluded from an activity, it can affect mentally and physically.

I asked Lynn Heramis, Northwest’s school counselor, her perspective on how social media directly affects teens’ mental health. Lynn tells me, “One of the concerns that has been brought up by Daniel Siegel, MD from UCLA School of Medicine, is when the amount of time that the adolescent brain spends on social media (hours/days) takes away time/opportunities for the brain to practice strengthening skills in paying attention to what’s going on around us and inside of us (presence, in-person relationships, self-awareness, perspective taking, insight, empathy, ect.) This includes experiences with human connection and interactions with the physical world around us, as well as taking low stakes risks with social interactions. Taking the time to notice and process social cues and feedback about our way of being can spark thoughtful reflection while accepting that we learn from making mistakes, which can help support healthy functioning and overall wellness for teens. So without having practice for this kind of space and time, it can be very stressful for teens and for the people who care about them.”

We often see and hear people explain self-esteem issues due to posts they have seen online. Despite this, they continue to spend hours on social media comparing themselves and judging others, even without realizing it. I am no exception – I have caught myself comparing the number of “likes” I receive on my posts to other friends. This then causes me to question the worthiness of my image, and I constantly wonder if a better picture would have fit the artificial standards of a “good” social media post. Social media plays on the reward center of our brain and is the main reason it is hard for teens to stop using when in this cycle of validation. 

Schools have started to notice the harm that social media is playing on students’ mental health. Recently Seattle Public Schools filed a lawsuit against multiple social media agencies including Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and TikTok in an effort to hold the companies “Accountable for the harm they have wreaked on the social, emotional, and mental health of its students,” the district claimed. “It has become increasingly clear that many children are burdened by mental health challenges. Our students — and young people everywhere — face unprecedented learning and life struggles that are amplified by the negative impacts of increased screen time, unfiltered content, and potentially addictive properties of social media,” Seattle Public Schools superintendent Brent Jones said in a statement. This lawsuit claims that “Defendants have successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of youth, hooking tens of millions of students across the country into positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse of Defendants’ social media platforms. Worse, the content Defendants curate and direct to youth is too often harmful and exploitative … Defendants’ misconduct has been a substantial factor in causing a youth mental health crisis, which has been marked by higher and higher proportions of youth struggling with anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm, and suicidal ideation.”

Lynn tells me what Northwest is doing to support students struggling with mental health saying, “It’s clear that the need for teen mental health support since the pandemic started has significantly increased. Since the physical return to school, the two counselors serving NWS have been supporting the immediate needs of students and families who voluntarily seek support. With the consent of a student/family, we collaborate and consult with NWS faculty and other professionals from the greater community.”

Looking past the posts seen on social media and understanding that most of the content only shows the most fun and exciting moments of someone’s life is so important. It is simple to misinterpret information on the internet, form opinions, and judge based on the things you see online. Someone you see online, who seems to have a perfect life and no flaws portrayed on social media may be suffering behind the scenes in ways nobody could have ever predicted. Spending more than 3 hours on social media per day puts adolescents at a higher risk for mental health problems. By reducing time spent on social media, you can improve your mental health.

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