Social media is a fact of modern life, and it is a major part of how many teenagers interact with the world around them. At its best, social media can be a way to facilitate connection, learning, and growth, but too often, these platforms do more harm than good to teens’ mental health.
A social media “like” triggers feel-good chemicals in the brain, and when someone depends on those doses of happy hormones, they can become dependent on social media for validation. This sets up a cycle of attention-seeking behavior. Teenagers can easily fall into the comparison trap, comparing their own lives to the glossy and heavily edited versions of people they see on Instagram and TikTok. It’s a setup for sadness that makes attention disorders, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem issues even worse.
The overuse of social media can actually rewire a teen's brain to constantly seek out immediate gratification, leading to obsessive, compulsive and addictive behaviors. It can also lead to social deficits in teens who only communicate with peers through electronic devices. Adolescents need face-to-face contact to learn interpersonal effectiveness skills for both social functioning and brain development.
Social media can also become an escape from the real world. When daily life feels overwhelming or too stressful to bear, teenagers can sometimes retreat into screens for an endless supply of entertainment delivered directly to their eyes and ears. This retreat might feel comforting in the moment, but it means the child is missing out on the joy and enrichment the real world has to offer. Screens can’t replace the joy and calm that comes from truly being present around friends and family.
At its worst, social media can be outright dangerous, leaving children vulnerable to cyberbullying, disturbing content, or sexual predators. This is why parents need to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to decisions about how their teenagers will engage with the online world.
For all its faults, social media is not all bad. When used in a healthy way, online platforms can help teens stay in touch with family and friends and connect with like-minded peers who share the same hobbies and interests. Many clubs, sports leagues, and arts organizations post their events online, using social media as a tool to facilitate real-world interactions. The problems arise when teenagers become too dependent on an app or a screen to intermediate all their interactions with their peers.
Even teens with mental health issues can benefit from using social media the right way: Kids can share healthy coping skills and learn positive behaviors from others. Plus, online substance abuse treatment and mental health treatment can help kids find support they might not be able to find at home or at school.
The difference between healthy and unhealthy social media use all comes down to boundaries. Parents can and should set boundaries for the kinds of content their teens can view, and how much time they can spend on social media platforms.
I recommend limiting screen time for your child so that the bulk of their conversations happen face-to-face. Additionally, parents should have access to their childrens’ accounts so they can monitor conversations and see the content their children are viewing.
Odds are strong that your child will use social media in their future adult lives, so modeling healthy habits and positive interactions can give them the tools to use these platforms in a way that enhances their lives rather than detracting from it.
If you notice your child withdrawing more and more into the online realm, this is a signal that something might be wrong, and you should check in to see if this could be a sign of larger mental health problems.
When parents are “in the know” about their teens’ social media use, these online platforms can be a tool for connecting with others and learning from them. It’s up to you to make the difference for your child by staying in tune with what they see on their screens.