social media and mental health in youth

In a recent study, researchers identified how social media could support mental health in youth.  

In recent years, there has been an alarming rise in anxiety, depression, and suicide risk among teens. Many believe that heavy technology and social media use is a contributing factor to the current crisis in youth mental health.

In an effort to understand how to best support adolescents and develop a future plan, Connected Learning Lab released a report that synthesizes what is known about youth mental health and its associations with social media use. The authors integrated findings from existing larger-scale reviews, youth voices who have grown up on social media, and a systematic review of digital mental health apps available for youth.

The report provides guidance to identify gaps and opportunities for supporting adolescents in today’s digitally-focused world. The authors highlighted a prevalent assumption that more time spent using social media negatively influences youth mental health and has deflected attention from their real concerns. They also observed that more and more adolescents are actively seeking support for mental wellbeing online, but very few are connecting with digital mental health apps. 

Key relevant findings, benefits, and opportunities from the report include:

  • Online and offline vulnerabilities are interrelated. Youths who are especially sensitive to social evaluation, certain stigmatized identities (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender), or may have a history of victimization may be more prone to online vulnerabilities. At the same time, some teens often report benefits from supportive online communities.
  • The claim that screen time and social media use is a cause of mental health outcomes is uncertain. Instead, it’s important to gain more precise knowledge about the specific forms of social media engagement that amplify or mitigate mental health risks for different adolescents.
  • Extending parental support to online spaces can be more effective in supporting youth wellbeing than restricting technology access and creating more tension between youth and parents.
  • Recognizing that youth experience positive social support in many online settings may reduce their feelings of social isolation and social anxiety, increase their social skills, and augments their offline friendships.
  • Unfortunately, the majority of digital mental health tools have not been designed with adolescents in mind. Youths actively seek support for mental health information online and are using online tools. But there appears to be a mismatch between current digital mental health supports and where youth are digitally, developmentally, cognitively, and emotionally. Digital mental health supports need to be developed to fit their interests, needs, and capabilities. Technology developers, mental health professionals, innovators, and experts should collaborate to be responsive to youth needs and interests.  

Given the rising rates of mental health concerns among young people in the U.S., researchers encourage a sense of urgency for more longitudinal research on how digital spaces and tools can be better designed and used to support youth’s mental health. This research is critical to support adolescent development and informed product development.

Reference: Ito M, Odgers C, Schueller S. Social media and youth wellbeing: what we know and where we could go. Pivotal Ventures, Connected Learning Lab. 2020.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

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