More disturbing news arrived recently about the toxic effect of social media on adolescent mental health.
Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State, wrote in The Atlantic that her research, subject of a forthcoming book, finds teens are going out less, dating less and increasingly feel lonely and depressed. Entitled Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, the article said the more time teens spend looking at screens, the more depressed they may become.
Research is showing teen depression rates have jumped significantly. Do you see evidence of this?
Our department treats multiple patients with depression every day. Child psychiatry waiting lists are several months long. We also have doubled our capacity for psychiatric patients on our psychiatric unit in the last year to accommodate the needs of the community. So definitely we are seeing evidence of increasing depression rates.
Are smartphones and social media driving the trend?
I wouldn’t say they are the direct cause of the increase in depression, but they are a factor. A few years ago, researchers coined a term “Facebook depression” that describes people who spend a significant amount of time on social media and develop depression. There is more of an opportunity for “cyberbullying” to occur on social media due to relative anonymity available. If you couple this with bullying that may already be occurring at school or other places, it can lead to an increase in anxiety and depressive symptoms. The home is thought to be a safe place for everyone. Technology has made it so that even your home will not keep you safe from bullying.
We have found that social media and access to information made available through technology has allowed young people to find support groups or health information that may not be accessible to them in their real-world environment. Also, we have had patients in our own clinic use apps on their smartphones to remind them to come to their appointments, take medications, etc. However, social media and other technological advances also make it easier for bad information to be disseminated among impressionable young people. I am not just referring to hate groups or pornography. There are sites and apps that pose as “health sites” that are actually disseminating incorrect information that could be harmful to patients.
Are girls particularly vulnerable?
I am not aware of any studies that break down risk based on sex. We do see young women being impacted in a negative way when it comes to body image. Media has always had an impact on how people feel their bodies should look. In the past, this came from print and TV. However, technology has advanced to the point that anyone can take a picture with their camera and use Photoshop-like programs much like magazines can. It is even easier for the image of an unattainable “ideal beauty” to be distributed to young people. Young men are also affected by these images.
Do you see that teens are more isolated? If they rely on social media platforms at the expense of human contact, that’s bound to have an impact, right?
In a way, yes, they are. In the past, teens interacted more in person and did not have an online persona. They still have social interaction, but it is online. In a way, they are still meeting their social needs. However, you can argue that since online social interaction is substituting face-to-face interaction, they may be losing the ability to communicate in person or the ability to pick up on cues you have in face-to-face communication.
What do you advise teens who are addicted to social media?
We see a number of teens who are addicted to various substances, social media included. Most of them deny having any problem. I always challenge patients in that case. Whether it be smoking, social media or whatever they use in excess, I tell them to take a 2-week break from using. If they find it hard to resist, it is a wake-up call that they may be relying on social media too much.
What do you advise parents?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a healthy Family Media Plan.
Also with any adolescent issue, parental involvement is paramount.
- Parents should talk their kids about things they read online or on social media. Also, talk to them about specific issues teens have that are specific to social media (i.e., sexting, cyberbullying).
- If a parent isn’t technology savvy, it would be ideal for them to familiarize themselves with the various social media outlets or with smartphones/tablets, etc.
- Place restrictions on tablets/phones/computers and on sites the teen can access. Set up expectations and boundaries early on. There have been technological advances in parents’ ability to control or monitor technology used by young people.