Pediatrics: The Case for Social Media

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What word immediately springs to mind when the words “social media” and “mental health” are placed in the same sentence? One may be “correlated.” Studies show that frequent use of social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, is linked to poor mental health in adolescents, and the statistics alone are staggering.

On average, U.S. children aged two and under spend about 42 minutes per day with screens, such as watching a TV show, as opposed to teens, who usually spend about 3.8 hours.

For adolescents, studies have also shown that there is a correlation between frequent social media use and insomnia. Teenagers who engaged with their screens for less time were more likely to use coping behaviors and engage in social activities to improve their mental health. Insomnia, along with other factors associated with too much screen time, may lead to depression in some teens. Depression is the fourth leading cause of illness for adolescents aged 15 to 19 years.

It’s indisputable that heavy social media use has drawbacks. Social media can be highly addictive, encourage cyberbullying, and lead to depression and anxiety in some teens. However, simply telling teens to cut off social media use may not be a viable solution. Social media utilization has grown every year by over 12 percent since 2005. Studies estimate that in 2020 alone, there were more than 3.6 billion people using social media. This number is expected to increase to 4.1 billion in 2025. At this rate, and the manner at which it has permanently changed the way we communicate and share information, it’s unlikely that adolescents can completely avoid social media altogether.

This is why, in some cases, it may help to come into discussions with children, teenagers, and parents with a balanced view. Social media can lead to harmful effects, but it has some good qualities as well that shouldn’t be entirely ignored.

The Benefits of Social Media

1. It helps teens meet their social needs.

Eighty-three percent of teens feel that social media has helped them feel connected to their friends, and 70 percent say they better understand their friends’ feelings. As they age, adolescents may not have as much time to spend with their friends in person. Social media helps make this easier and encourages interaction in an online social setting. Respondents who identified as Black and Hispanic were the most likely to say they felt connected to their peers compared to White teens. Among these benefits, social media also helps peers stay in touch with friends and family who live far away or have moved. In fact, studies from Johns Hopkins University encourage social media use to help patients overcome feelings of isolation.

2. It can help with self-expression.

Sites like Instagram and Tumblr are great platforms for sharing art, poetry, and other creative work. Fifty-three percent of teens say they use social media to express their creativity. Those who use social media to express themselves report experiencing no changes in their mental health as a result of social media.

3. It can help teens identify with a community.

LGBTQIA+ users and those in marginalized groups have reported feeling less alone on social media because they can meet and connect with others in similar situations.

4. It can help with exposure to other points of view.

When adolescents feel uncomfortable asking their parents health-related questions, teens turn to social media to find answers. Social media also exposes teens to critical topics they may not necessarily research on their own, such as suicide prevention or the risks associated with vaping or smoking. Evidence shows teens understand that the internet is a supplemental information source rather than a primary one.

How Pediatricians Can Help

Because social media is here to stay, pediatricians have a unique opportunity to assess teenagers’ mental health and their social media utilization. The American Academy of Pediatrics has an entire section of its site dedicated to studies about the effect of social media on teens and helpful resources. One opportunity is helping teens become digitally literate so they think critically about what accounts they follow on social media and why.

Digital literacy isn’t something that pediatricians can teach their young patients in one session, but it can be explained across several visits. For example, does the patient report feeling more down than usual? Are they struggling to get enough sleep at night? Is the patient anxious or scared of news they’ve seen on social media?

Pediatricians may be able to trace some of these back to social media through an open discussion and the content the patient consumes. If adolescents are turning to the internet to answer health-related questions, pediatricians can direct them to reputable websites to help dispel the misinformation they may stumble across on social media. Finally, discussing the importance of setting reasonable limits and encouraging open dialogue about online content can help parents better understand their teen’s relationship with social media.

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