Social Media and Mental Illness: Research Finding a Link

September 25, 2020 ·

[Editor’s Note: This lesson is available for download at Teachers Pay Teachers for $3.99.]

A competition is going on for the executive functions of the brain of teenagers.

The competition is between anxiety and social media, each vying for a piece of the valuable real estate.

For teenagers to win out, they need to undertake radical management of social media, to try to manage it in the battle for mindshare.

Research Begins to Link Social Media Use and Mental Illness

Research is starting to show a relationship between onset of anxiety and depression issues for many teenagers and use of social media. One phrase used is a “culture of comparison”

One study out of the University of Pittsburgh found a correlation between time spent scrolling through social media apps and negative body image feedback. This was according to an account in Psycom. Those who had spent more time on social media had 2.2 times the risk of reporting eating and body image concerns, compared to their peers who spent less time on social media.

Another study from the UCLA Brain Mapping Center of teens ages 13 to 18 found that those receiving a high number of likes on photos showed increased activity in the reward center of the brain. It feels good to be “liked” and herd mentality is big on social media.

A survey by the American Psychological Association released in March 2019 found sharp increases in the number of young adults and adolescents who reported experiencing negative psychological symptoms. This was especially true of those born in 1995 or later, called the iGen. And the greatest spike was seen in 2011, when social media burst onto the scene.

The survey asked respondents if they had experienced depressive symptoms in the past year. The rate of those reporting symptoms consistent with major depression in the last 12 months increased 52 percent in adolescents from 2005 to 2017.

Also, young adults experiencing serious psychological distress in the previous 30 days increased 71 percent from 2008 to 2017.

Lack of Sleep

The new survey also found that young people are not sleeping as much as previous generations. Sleep deprivation affects mood and is associated with anxiety and depression. Light exposure alone, from looking at a screen, can delay the onset of sleep for 30 minutes.

Suggestions: Limit overall social media use; spend less time with digital media and more time engaged in social activities with people you can see, talk to, hear and touch.

“Spending time with people face to face is a big protective factor against depression,” said Aaron Fobian, clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Illustration by Sow Aya

How Social Media Can be Destructive

Most teens are hard-wired for socialization. Some teens do benefit from connecting with other teens through social media. Teens in small groups such as LGBTQ teens and teens struggling with mental health issues, can find some support and friendship through use of social media, which can be an improvement over living in isolation.

The downsides of social media are gaining more attention today. Here are ways social media can be destructive:

  • Focusing on “likes” can cause teens to make choices they would otherwise not make, including altering their appearance and accepting risky social media challenges;
  • Cyberbullying puts teen girls in particular at risk, but teen boys are not immune. Cyberbullying is associated with depression, anxiety and an elevated risk of suicidal thoughts.
  • Making comparisons: Even though most teens know their peers share only “highlight reels” on social media, everything from physical appearance to life circumstances to perceived successes and failures are under a microscope on social media.
  • Too many fake friends: The more people on the friend list, the more people have access to screenshot photos, Snaps and updates. They use them for any purpose; there is no privacy on social media.
  • Less face time: Social interaction skills require daily practice. It’s difficult to build empathy and compassion when most interaction is online. Human connection is powerful.

Social Media Anxiety Disorder – A Real Thing

Social media anxiety disorder is recognized by the Anxiety and Depression Association (ADAA) of America as a real disorder.

Sarah Fader, CEO and founder of Stigma Fighters, writing for the ADAA, says social media anxiety disorder is a mental health condition similar to social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, which is intense fear of being judged negatively or rejected in a social or performance situation.

The more technology we acquire, the more stressed out we become, it seems. Experts say nearly 20% of people with social media accounts cannot go more than three hours without checking them.

Here are some characteristics of the condition:

● Interrupting conversations to check your social media accounts
● Lying to others about how much time you spend on social media
● Withdrawal from friends and family
● Trying to stop or reduce your use of social media more than once before without being successful
● Loss of interest in other activities
● Neglecting work or school to comment on Facebook or Twitter account
● Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you are not able to access social media
● Spending over six hours per day on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram
● Overwhelming need to share things with others on social media sites
● Having your phone with you 24 hours a day to check your social media sites
● Using social media more often than you planned
● Severe nervousness or anxiety when you are not able to check your notifications
● Negative impacts in your personal or professional life due to social media usage

“If you are spending several hours a day on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, you are not going to have enough time to work, study, or spend time with loved ones,” stated Fader.

Parents and families are searching for a happy medium. Some are disconnecting on weekends. Some try a “no phone in the bedroom” rule. Others are putting daily time limits on social media use, such as an hour, and well before bedtime. The disconnected teen might miss the phone
less than he or she thinks.

You have to get out and enjoy your real life, not your social media “life” because that is not a real life,” Fader advised students. “If you are having trouble doing this or you just need to talk to someone, there are people who can help you with this.”

Illustration by Sow Ay

Written and Compiled by John P. Desmond (Mr. D.)

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Social Media and Mental Illness – Study Questions
What is a “culture of comparison”?


Describe a finding of any of these studies: University of Pittsburgh study on impact of social media; UCLA Brain Mapping Center study of teens ages 13 to 18 on use of social media; same study on rate of those reporting symptoms consistent with major depression between 2005 and 2017.


How long before you want to go to sleep should you sign off all your screens?

Name two ways social media can be destructive.

What is social anxiety disorder?

Can you describe your own social media habits? (at least before treatment)

Are you considering revising/adjusting your social media habits when you get back home? If yes, how?

Please share any additional comments or observations here and say whether we can share:

This lesson is available for download at Teachers Pay Teachers for $3.99.

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