A recent study found that teens spend roughly nine hours a day consuming media for enjoyment. Nine hours a day is more time than teens usually spend sleeping. It’s more time than they spend at school. And a large chunk of those nine hours are spent on social media.
Many teens say that they’d rather go without food than without their smartphone. They might check in on their social media accounts as often as 100 times a day.
This reliance is having an effect on the mental health of our teens. And the effects are especially strong in teenage girls.
Teens’ brains are wired to be more dependent on peer approval than at any time before or after. They’re also more attuned to the rewards of social success and peer pressure. During this time, teens are finding their identities and trying out their ideas and skills on a stage larger than the one that they were raised in at home. Perhaps that’s why so many teens obsessively monitor their social media activity to determine their own popularity status. This is especially true for girls, who spend an average of 40 minutes more per day on social media than boys do.
How Does This Affect Mental Health?
It might not seem at first like so much investment in social media can be harmful, but it actually has a powerful effect on mental health. Some studies have found direct correlations between increased use of social media and the risk of depression and anxiety disorders. Kids today are growing up with more anxiety and less self-esteem, and much of that can be attributed to the misuse of social media.
What Are They Doing on Social Media?
Teens are posting selfies and seeing how many of their friends like the picture. They’re keeping up-to-date on peer gossip in real time. They’re making sure that no one is saying something mean about them. They’re making sure that they’re friends aren’t having fun without them.
Although this looks like connection and communication, the truth is that it’s missing the most important aspects of human connection; time, patience, and physical presence. Text-heavy communication is great in many ways, but it also places us in an environment where we can’t help but be blind to the subliminal cues of body language, eye contact, and facial expression. Instead of making us feel connected, this can make us feel more alone and disable us when it comes to reading those cues in the real world later.
Another side effect of the disconnection of social media is that it has become easier and easier to be cruel under the anonymous screen of an online identity, and without having to stand the heat of direct interpersonal contact. This has led to the rise of cyberbullying, wherein people say things that they would never be cruel enough to say to another’s face.
One more thing that this leads to is obsessive image-management. In order to gain more and more approval from peers, teens carefully cultivate an online persona that may or may not be accurate to their real selves. This disconnect from our own identities can lead to problems with self-esteem. It fuels fake friendships that sap our energy instead of challenging us and helping us grow. It can even perpetuate “imposter syndrome” wherein we may feel like we’re never quite enough because we don’t match the person that we portray ourselves to be.