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How smartphones and social media contribute to depression and anxiety in teens

April 03, 2018

I recently celebrated my 10-year anniversary working as a therapist with the Teen Xpress program. I have now spent over a decade counseling teenagers, and in that time clothing styles, technology, politics, methods of learning, even socializing has evolved. In all the ways that the world has changed, though, it seems that nothing has rocked a teen’s world more than the invention of the smart phone and social media. 

I remember the first time I saw a smart phone. It was 2009. A coworker showed me her new phone and all the cool things it could do. I’d never seen anything like it. Fast forward to 2018, and I do not leave the house without my smart phone. I rarely leave the ROOM without my smart phone. Of course, I can function without it; I did for most of my life, but our phones are so convenient and easy to use and reassuring. It’s just really hard to put them down.

Why smartphones are so important to teens

Now imagine you’re 15 years old. You do not remember a time when there weren’t smart phones, internet, or computers. Your parents have had cell phones of some kind, probably since before you were born. Everyone you see has a phone and they probably don’t leave the room without it either. Our teens are taught just by observing their world that they need one too, and they get that message very early on. It’s not just wanting and needing through observation, either. Smart phones (and cell phones) are a status symbol and over time they have become more about socializing and internet access and less about an actual phone.

Socializing is incredibly important to teens. It’s part of their developmental process. As anyone that has a teen or worked with teens knows, friendships are crucial. When social media networks started to explode all over the internet around the time that everyone started getting smart phones, it seemed like a perfect mix of socializing and technology for many adolescents. However, now that smartphones have been around for about a decade or so, there is finally some research available on how perfect (or not so perfect) these little devices actually are.

Smartphones and social media networks amplify adolescent struggles

According to Dr. Jean Twenge, professor of psychology and author of the book, iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, levels of depression and anxiety in teens started to increase around 2011, the same year that the amount of people that owned a smart phone surpassed 50 percent. Further studies by Twenge and others have echoed a connection between smart phone use, having a social media presence, and mental health struggles.

How could an accessible technological device with the capabilities of enriching our social lives, be connected with rising feelings of anxiety and depression? Twenge and others have discovered a few reasons as why this could be happening.

Social media networks and nearly constant access to them via smartphones can negatively affect teens by:

  • Making it easy to compare themselves with others

Any of us that have even one social media account know this one. We all know that our friends and family members (and come on, we do it, too) are posting the most visually pleasing picture of ourselves and others that we can. Back in the old days when we used cameras, the pictures you took were the pictures you got- closed eyes and all. Not to mention, they weren’t posted for the whole world to see. 

When what we see is others’ best smiles, best hair, best pose, and best backdrop, we can’t help but take notice of how they look, and how WE look in comparison. As adults we may have enough ego strength not to let someone’s perfect picture affect how we feel about ourselves. However, it can be a bit trickier at 13, 15, or 17 years old to remember that the reality is that the perfect picture was probably captured after 48 or so bad ones were deleted! No one is perfect, no matter what their profile picture looks like.  Our teens need to know that.

  • Contributing to feelings of loneliness and isolation

    Feeling left out is not a good feeling. Many teens that report using social media sites share that they feel lonely frequently. One possible reason is that they may be seeing pictures of friends and people they know spending time together, and maybe they were not invited to be a part of the fun. Before social media, un-included people either never knew they weren’t invited or only heard about the fun they missed. Now, they see what they weren’t a part of firsthand on their phone.

    Additionally, we are at a moment in time where there is a new generation coming of age. Tentatively nicknamed the iGen, people born between 1995 and 2012 are showing some very different characteristics from Millenials and Gen Xers, one of which is that those in the iGen are more likely to stay home than go out to be with friends. One possible reason for that is that teens today don’t need to leave the house to hang out with their friends, thanks to their smart phones. Staying in seems to be the safer option, especially to the helicopter parents of the world, but what we see in the process is that while these teens are staying home, they are often in their rooms, often playing with their phone for hours, with no real face to face contact with anyone. 

  • Magnifying the need to "measure up” or compete with others

    I have experienced the feeling of not being able to keep up while on social media. It’s that feeling we get when it seems like everyone we know is on a vacation, or getting a promotion, or getting married, or having babies, and we are still just watching it happen while nothing seems to change in our own lives.  This happens to adolescents, too. Boyfriends, girlfriends, partying, graduating, driving, taking selfies, going to Prom are happening, but not for all kids. Some kids may get that feeling that many of us adults have had that leads to feeling like, “I just can’t keep up” or even “Why not me?”. For some adolescents, feelings like this can lead to stress, disappointment, and self-doubt.

    What parents can do to minimize the downside of smartphones and social media

    The Monitoring the Future Survey is a national study which asks questions of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders annually to learn about many different aspects of teen life, including happiness. The study has found that the less screen time an adolescent reports, the happier they are. Conversely, the more screen time an adolescent reports, the more unhappiness they experience. 

    This is a simple yet concerning statistic. For those looking for ways to assist a teen who is struggling emotionally and who also spends significant amounts of time on social media, here are some things to consider:

  • Turn off the phone and engage in other activities, preferably activities that involve face to face socializing and/or physical activity.
  • Talk with your teen about their screen usage and their feelings. Share your concerns in a non-accusatory way and work on communicating openly with them.
  • Set limits regarding phone use and stick to them. If this is a challenge, think outside the box. If your child resists your attempts to set limits on use, tell them that they need to step up and help pay for their phone. If they are old enough, encourage them to go out and get their first job to help pay for the cost. They definitely can’t get away with playing on their phone while they are busy bagging groceries, and they might even make some new friends!
  • Educate yourself on symptoms and signs of anxiety and depression. If you suspect your teen is depressed or severely anxious, reach out to their pediatrician, a mental health professional, and their school. Talk to teachers and school staff that know them well. Familiarize yourself with treatment options.
  • Be prepared to look at your own phone use. A powerful way to make a change in your family is for you to lead the way.Limiting everyone’s phone use creates more opportunities for family members to spend quality time together and sends a strong message of support to your teen that you are all in this together.

For all the negativity, it’s important to note the positives, too. There are some wonderful things that come from social media. Teens can connect with friends and learn more about each other. They can reach large audiences to organize and share messages about their beliefs. They can act as support systems for each other.  They can use social media as a break to cope with family or academic stress. Social media is not all bad. However, for those that struggle with feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, sadness, or anxiety, social media should be used wisely.