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Social media use has skyrocketed among adolescents in recent years. For example, in 2016, the average American adolescent spent twice as much time online as the average adolescent in 2006 (Twenge, Martin, & Spitzberg, 2018). These trends have potential implications for adolescent health, which led me to the field of adolescent mental health, generally — and to social media use, specifically.
Adolescents face many threats to healthy development, including bullying, substance use, violence, insufficient sleep, and poor diet. Many studies have found a cross-sectional association between social media use and adolescent mental health, and I was not surprised to see the same in our study.
Our findings suggest that social media use, and digital media use more broadly, may also negatively influence adolescent development if engaged in excessively. What was surprising to me, but also sobering and demoralizing, was that this association held up even after controlling for prior mental health — this adds to the mounting evidence of a true connection between social media use and mental health.
In our analyses for how hypothetical reductions in social media use might influence mental health, I was surprised by how much mental health problems might be reduced under certain conditions — up to 9.4% for internalizing problems (i.e. anxious-depressive behavior) if adolescents who used more than 30 minutes of social media per day instead used 30 minutes or less.
Parents who are concerned about their teenagers’ social media use may consider implementing a Family Media Use Plan, developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. This allows families to develop guidelines around screen-free zones in the household, screen-free times (such as spending time with family or meal times), and device curfews (where devices need to be turned off after a certain time).
For anyone who is concerned about their own social media use, there are numerous apps available for phones that allow you to regulate your time spent on social media.
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