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Is social media acting as a risk factor in adolescent mental health problems?

Social media platforms are constantly growing and becoming a central part of people’s lives, especially for the younger generations. While adults can also be negatively affected by social media, in this blog I will focus on adolescence, as this problem has attracted so much media attention recently.

Social media is, at its core, simply a tool. It is how we interact and use social media that evolves this tool into a weapon.

Whether this be through exacerbating peer feedback, causing detrimental effects on sleep, or providing a constant stream of images photoshopped to meet unrealistic standards of perfection, social media is unwittingly impacting our mental well-being.

One example of this can be seen in the image above. Grazia magazine photoshopped out the natural hair of actress Lupita Nyong’o for her magazine cover shoot, as it seemed this would fit their ‘ideal’ of what hair should look like. However, it’s not just magazines that are doing this. Apps such as Facetune and FaceApp provide a means for anyone, regardless of age or skill, to edit and retouch their photographs before being posted onto social media.


Since Facebook’s emergence into the public sphere in 2006, the online space rapidly expanded to include other platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. The surge in popularity of these social media sites has raised concerns about their role and effect on adolescent wellbeing, mental health and cognitive development.

Personally — and I am 21 years old — I frequently experience my friends using various apps to ‘Photoshop’ themselves before posting onto Instagram; making their waist smaller or thighs thinner due to pressure to look more like the celebrities they see on social media.

For my friends and I, Instagram only became popular when we were about 16 years old.

However nowadays 11-year-olds are creating accounts — and, in the last year there has been an increase in Instagram use from 14% to 23% by 12–15- year- olds. So I can only imagine the impact it is having for these children.

I’ve seen the damaging effect it can have on self-esteem and anxiety, which is now going to start from a younger age if not controlled. So I wanted to ask, why are adolescents specifically so affected by social media?

The social inclusion

We know that adolescence is a crucial period for the development of our brains and our cognitive function. Many hormonal changes occur, which trigger structural remodelling and plasticity of the brain, providing a possible explanation for adolescents’ sensitivity to their social environment. Alongside this, parental influence decreases and peer opinion becomes more important — reports have shown that social and personal worth is predominantly impacted by peer evaluation, and rejection can reflect unworthiness. Thus, it is unsurprising that there is an increased vulnerability to mental health problems, such as low self-esteem, anxiety and depression, during this period. This led me to question, how does social media contribute to, or exacerbate, these already heightened emotions? Social media provides a way in which rejection and acceptance are constantly being highlighted and emphasised. In adolescent studies, regular contact with friends over messaging platforms created feelings of being loved and popular, increasing self-esteem. Those that do not conform with this standard feel excluded, and pressured to comply. For example, in one study the online game Cyberball was used to evaluate these emotions. Participants excluded within the game reported a having lowered mood and heightened anxiety when compared with those included, even compared with adults who were excluded.

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In the group of the adolescents excluded by their peers, increased activity in brain regions was seen, specifically the anterior cortex and insula. These regions of the brain are involved in functions such as socio-emotional processing and decision making. These same regions are often implicated in depression, and healthy individuals who showed the increased activity also had an increased risk of developing depression. This may suggest there is increased vulnerability to social rejection during adolescence.


The impact on sleep

This need for inclusion, which is being exacerbated by social media platforms, also has detrimental effects on sleep quality.

The sleepless nature of social media results in a perpetual stream of notifications 24 hours a day, creating pressure to be available constantly throughout this time. The demand for availability with the fear of exclusion leads to heightened anxiety and night-time use of phones.

Additionally, blue light from screen exposure suppresses melatonin production and interferes with circadian rhythm. Therefore, this use before bed creates a direct pathway to sleep disruption that did not previously exist.

The Telegraph

This is of growing importance as the number of adolescent social media users who take their phones to bed with them continues to increase. In 2018, an OfCom report showed that 69% of 12–15 -year-olds have social media profiles, and 71% of them take their phones to bed with them.

However, with regards to sleep, it doesn’t end here.

As explained, there is an increasing need for availability. Availability, and the fear of missing out on new content, is facilitated by leaving one’s phone on at all times, and restricted access has been seen to increase anxiety levels.

Incoming alerts can lead to sleep disruption throughout the night, and many adolescents feel obligated to return texts as soon as they are received to avoid guilt and misunderstanding. A downward spiral occurs, initiated by the need to be available.

This interruption in sleep becomes even more of an issue when we consider that poor sleep in adolescents is associated with increased anxiety, low self-esteem and depressive symptoms.

And we have recently discussed in another blog on this platform that disrupted sleep also increases the risk of obesity, with further risk for mental health and self-esteem.


Peer feedback

We have seen the effect of social rejection on adolescent mental health, so what are the effects of peer feedback, and how does this relate to social media?

Social media acts as a source that provides carefully selected and often highly edited photographs of friends and celebrities.

As previously mentioned with reference to even my own friends, this then becomes the norm when using apps such as Instagram and Facebook, and leads to the bombardment of photographs portraying the media’s ‘thin-body ideal’ and ‘perfect’ appearance.

Multiple studies show that adolescents may internalize these ‘ideals’ and socially compare themselves, thus leading to increased body dissatisfaction.

Furthermore, social media use increases dependency on personal pictures for social validation, due to the immediate reward of visible, quantifiable ‘likes’. This also increases body dissatisfaction due to the pressure felt to be and look perfect, to gain the largest number of likes.

Increased body dissatisfaction is a danger to wellbeing; the internalization of these ideals and consequent body dissatisfaction increases depressive symptoms in adolescents.

Social media thus provides a constant exposure to ideals and ‘norms’ that are decided by the media, which teenagers would not previously have been exposed to.

The issue isn’t just constrained to body ideals.

Another example where damage can occur is in relation to drugs and alcohol, which are often ‘glamorized’ by celebrities. Constant exposure to these activities on social media normalises them, encouraging adolescents to partake in the same activities.

However, the issues surrounding social media have also gone beyond peer pressure and self-image concerns. It was just this weekend that a 17-year olds death was exploited via social media sites such as Instagram, Twitter and Discord. Graphic images of her death were posted and spread quickly before these sites could intervene. This is just one of many examples of how social media can be weaponised.

And worryingly, this is just one example out of many I could use.

Seen on a wall in Camberwell


Current and future perspectives

There is increasing evidence of the link between a bad use of social media and low self-esteem, depression, body dissatisfaction and poor sleep quality. Thus, one needs to ask what can be done to prevent the decline of adolescent mental health in accordance with social media use.

Throughout the last 5 years, I have seen multiple friends negatively affected by what they are constantly exposed to on social media, and a pressure to keep up with the ‘norms’ created by those with more followers than themselves.

However, the multiple benefits social media provides should not be ignored. It provides a platform which allows connectivity regardless of location, and allows for the integration of different cultures. It acts as a tool for education and awareness, and can act as a creative outlet or source of inspiration.

Therefore, the question moving forward is, how can we balance out the negatives with the positives in a constructive, non-damaging way?

As a starting point, it should be noted that family or other environmental factors can protect children from the potentially deleterious effects of social media.

For example, a positive mother-adolescent relationship decreases the association between social media use and body dissatisfaction.

When a child is secure in their current relationships, their self-worth is less dependent on social validation and comparison with others. They feel less pressure to conform to the ideals represented by social media to gain acceptance.

More research is needed to understand this relationship’s exact dynamic, however moving forward mothers could be informed of the importance of this role.

Furthermore, phones now have features which tell you how many hours a day you use an app, and allow you to restrict the number of hours the app is used. This awareness may encourage users to decrease time spent on the apps, and restriction of hours may help prevent night-time use.

Eventually, this could decrease pressure to be available at all hours.

Additionally, major phone companies have introduced a ‘night shift’ mode for their phones, which claim to give off less blue light, in turn reducing the negative side-effects of this light.

People are slowly becoming more aware of this rising problem, and taking steps to adapt to this new world which revolves around social media and the internet.

Let’s hope that my friends notice too!


header image souce: Yahoo Lifestyle

Grazia magazine photoshopped out the natural hair of actress Lupita Nyong’o for her magazine cover shoot, as it seemed this would fit their ‘ideal’ of what hair should look like.


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