Think you know how teens would say social media impacts their mental health? You may be surprised

Overall, teens are more likely to say that social media has a positive effect on how they feel about themselves rather than a negative one, according to survey findings from Social Media, Social Life conducted by Common Sense Media.

What’s more, for teenagers who are already struggling with social-emotional well-being, “social media seems to have a heightened importance in their lives and a heightened impact on their feelings — both positive and negative,” the survey found.

“Most people assume that social media causes teens to feel more depressed, more lonely, and more left out, but that’s not necessarily the case,” said Mike Robb, senior research director for Common Sense Media.

These results don’t surprise Courtney L. McLaughlin, an associate professor of school psychology at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania whose research focuses on adolescents’ mental health and social media.

She said that youth coping with mental health challenges are naturally more vulnerable to both the risk and resiliency factors of social media. “Essentially, they have more to lose and more to gain,” she said.

Heightened importance for vulnerable youth

In the survey, teenagers were asked how social media makes them feel. Beforehand, the participants were grouped by low, medium, or high social-emotional well-being based on questions about their current mental health.

Teenagers in the low social-emotional well-being group were more likely than those in the medium and high groups to report both positive and negative effects of social media.

Specifically, they were more likely to say that social media made them feel less depressed, lonely, or left out. “That could be because kids may be better at finding the things online that would make them less depressed,” Robb said.

Indeed, a study published this summer by Hopelab found that teens with depressive symptoms were more likely than their peers to seek out digital health resources on the internet.

At the same time, teens in the low social-emotional well-being group were also more likely than their peers to report the negative effects of social media such as feeling left out or feeling bad about themselves if no one comments on their posts, Robb said. Also, more than one-third of the teens in the low social-emotional well-being group said they had been cyberbullied, compared to 5 percent of teens in the high social-emotional well-being group.

“That’s a pretty staggering difference,” Robb said. “We need to be more aware of cyberbullying for these kids.”

How can educators use these findings?

First, don’t assume that eliminating social media when a student is feeling depressed or left out is the answer, Robb said. “For some kids, [social media] may actually have a protective effect,” he said.

Instead, try to understand how social media impacts each student individually. “It’s important to actually listen to what they say about their social media experiences,” he said.

“A great way to investigate the negative or positive impacts of social media is through simply talking with adolescents,” said Dana L. Elmquist, a school psychologist intern at Wilmington Area School District, who coauthored the journal article Social Media Use Among Adolescents Coping with Mental Health with McLaughlin.

Elmquist, McLaughlin, and Chelshea Thompson, a teaching associate also at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, developed an interview guide to help school psychologists, counselors, and other mental health professionals find out how social media might be impacting a student’s mental health.

Elmquist said areas that may be important to cover in the interview include:

  • The onset of social media use.
  • General social media usage.
  • Social media preferences.
  • Influence and socialization on social media.
  • Impressions and attitudes regarding social media.
  • Resources accessed on social media.

“All of these general themes can help mental health professionals guide their conversation with adolescents,” Elmquist said.

Jennifer Herseim covers Section 504 and education technology as it relates to special education for LRP Publications.

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