By Dr. Mehri Moore, M.D.
As we covered in Part I of this article, numerous scientific studies have demonstrated the concerning connection between adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide and excessive smartphone and social media use. According to research conducted by San Diego State University professor of psychology Jean Twenge, for instance, adolescents who use social media every day are 13% more likely to report frequent depressive symptoms than those who use social media more sparingly.
The proliferation of social media has not been without detrimental effects on young men, but data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that young women have had an even tougher time adjusting. While suicide deaths among 15- to 19-year-old males increased by 31% from 2007 to 2015, they more than doubled among 15- to 19-year-old females during that same interval.
It bears asking, then, why young women are particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of improper social media use. There is still a lot of research that must be done before we have a definitive answer, but speaking broadly, it’s clear that social media functions as a magnifying glass for many of the offline social tendencies that often compromise women’s mental wellbeing.
As we’ve highlighted before, an American woman is more likely to suffer from depression in any given year than an American man is in his lifetime. If anything, the underlying social factors that have led to this incredible discrepancy are only brought to the fore by social media.
The Darker Side of Social Media
People are quick to latch onto stories of cyberbullying taken too far as the crux of their indictment of adolescent social media use, but while these kinds of events are unquestionably tragic, there are far more common facets of social media use that, in the long term, can be just as damaging to a young person’s mental health.
Social media – especially as it’s used by adolescents – puts what researchers call a “highlight reel effect” on a user’s actual life. Most adolescents are fully aware of the fact that their friends and classmates are far more likely to post something to social media if it makes them look good or adds a glamorous sheen to their life, but many adolescents still struggle to dissociate “real life” from the snapshots they see on social media.
When compared side-by-side, a teen’s own lived experience will almost never live up to the highlight reels of their peers’ lives, and the resultant feelings of inadequacy can, over time, lead to bouts of depression.
This comparative impulse is particularly harmful to young women, especially when it comes to issues like body image. Experts have long agreed that the ideal – and almost always unattainable – female figure put on display on magazine covers, high-fashion catwalks, and movie screens can easily skew adolescent girls’ expectations of what their bodies should look like, and social media has only amplified this problematic media-consumer dynamic.
Not only do young women only have access to the most flattering of their peers’ photographs, they also have an unprecedented amount of access to fitness models and entertainers. Seeing a billboard or a magazine cover featuring an unrealistic portrayal of the female body is one thing, but social media has allowed young women to scroll through a near-endless feed of these kinds of images whenever and wherever they want.
Unfortunately, as one study published in The Canadian Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Review confirms, “Media is a causal risk factor for the development of eating disorders” because “media messages directly contribute to the extensive body discontent experienced by girls and women today in Western society.”
Though social media is certainly not the only cause of eating disorders among adolescent girls, many of these girls’ maladaptive eating behaviors are the direct result of trying to attain the idealized female figures they see just about every time they unlock their phones.
Setting Your Child Up for Success
This darker side of social media gives many parents pause, but as a parent, regulating your daughter’s social media use can often seem like an impossible endeavor. Complicating matters further is the fact that sports teams, after-school groups and clubs, and even school themselves have begun using social media to coordinate events, post updates on homework assignments, and so on. In other words, social media has become so ubiquitous that taking away your daughter’s social media privileges just isn’t a realistic – or productive – option.
As such, parents must make a real effort to maintain an open dialogue with their daughters about the healthiest ways to use social media, and only institute forced restrictions when absolutely necessary. Requiring that your child charges and/or stores their phone outside of their bedroom at night, for instance, is a reasonable and often important regulatory measure. Adolescents are wont to spend hours in their beds at night aimlessly wandering through the social media labyrinth, and this not only increases the likelihood that they will encounter harmful content – whether unhelpful body idealizations or a nasty cyberbully – but also eats into valuable sleeping hours.
At the end of the day, there’s no foolproof way to insulate your child from the detrimental effects of social media; you can only do your best to make sure that they are aware of the dangers of excessive or improper social media use and understand that it’s okay – and indeed smart – to log off if and when they get overwhelmed.
However, if you are concerned that your daughter’s social media use – or anything else – has already led to anxiety or depression, please feel free to reach out to us for help. Our programs feature dedicated treatment tracks for adolescent patients, and we have years of experience providing young women with the support they need to overcome their struggles with mental health issues and achieve lasting, durable recoveries.