By understanding how social media affects the self-image of teens and young adults, change-makers in the tech and mental health spaces can work together with parents/caregivers and educators to positively influence how future generations use the internet and view themselves.
The relationship between social media and mental health is complicated, and informed by many factors (active vs. passive scrolling, overall time spent with screens, and age/developmental stage). However, when these factors misalign, they can negatively impact young people, with lasting consequences; for example, they might begin to consciously or subconsciously compare themselves (their lifestyles, their bodies, and more) to what they see on their screens. This practice can lead to, or exacerbate, mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or body dysmorphia.
However, there are several actions that can help eliminate the potential for harm through social media engagement. That might include parents/caregivers (1) limiting screen time from a young age; (2) introducing media literacy in schools; and (3) sharing warning signs that certain apps may be having a detrimental effect on emotional and psychological well-being, so that individuals know when it’s time to turn off their screens—or, if necessary, ask for help.
1. Limiting screen time from a young age
It’s not unusual to walk into a restaurant and see toddlers glued to iPads. While technology allows parents/caregivers to take a break and enjoy their meals, it’s possible that being exposed to the internet at such a young age could impact their child’s long-term mental health.
Though it might seem alarmist to relate a toddler’s cartoon-watching to future self-image issues, it’s important to question when these correlations begin to form and what influences them. The University of Calgary reported that children under 5 are the “fastest-growing” consumers of digital media out of all age groups. And research shows that girls today are expressing concerns about their body size as early as Kindergarten, while 40%-60% of ages 6 to 12 are worried about gaining weight. This issue is not unique to females: By adolescence, 75% of boys feel dissatisfaction with their bodies.
One issue is that screen time often replaces other, healthier activities—introducing poor life choices to children from a young age. In light of proven correlations between screen time and obesity and disrupted sleep, it’s vital to ensure that a child’s screen time is never inhibiting rest or replacing opportunities to be physically active. Both of these can impact mental health in the short- and long-term. Additionally, studies have shown a link between greater screen time and lower cognitive performance.
Another cause for concern is that early access to the internet may lead to increased access over time; the end result might be a preteen or young adult with relatively uninhibited exposure. “I don’t think a 10-year-old, or even a 15-year-old, should be exposed to every possible thing on the internet. It is maturing everyone way too fast, and it’s overwhelming [for them],” says JED Senior Advisor Janis Whitlock, PhD, MPH.
For these reasons, and others, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends setting limits on daily screen time limits for ages 5 to 18. They include eliminating screens from meal and bedtime settings; making sure young people are staying engaged in non-screen activities, like sports and in-person social gatherings; and establishing the fact that screen time is a bonus, and a privilege, rather than a right or a need.
2. Introducing media literacy in schools
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that parents/caregivers should teach young people healthy habits with screen time and establish a family media plan.
But there is more that can be done. The Jed Foundation (JED) knows that young people’s mental health is best protected when they are surrounded by a community of caring—which means that they are supported not only at home, but also at school (and in all environments where they spend meaningful time, like church and mentorship groups). That’s why it’s important for schools to teach media literacy, as well.
“I wish we could get curricula in schools that were about media literacy that really went much deeper […] in helping people deconstruct what they see and become aware of how it’s affecting them,” says Whitlock. “There is a pretty big ocean between knowledge—what we know cognitively—and what we do, feel, and internalize. We don’t have many good mechanisms for addressing the second part [which is most relevant to mental health].”
Presently, there is not enough support in schools to help teens and young adults understand and work through their varied responses to the barrage of images and information that they are exposed to, from a very young age, online.
“In terms of resources, I think that the frontline is education; and it’s not good enough, if you ask me,” says Whitlock. “That said, since it is what we have available, we should leverage the young adult learning experience to support younger users when they encounter overwhelming imagery and profilateration of it.”
“The older teens get, the more they start to figure out their relationship with social media and their bodies,” says Whitlock. “We are often advised to not look at images on social media and make it personal, but of course we do.”
3. Sharing the warning signs of harm from social media
Social media isn’t going away anytime soon; and, given its myriad positive implications on mental health and global connectivity, there’s no reason it should. In order to counteract the potential negative side effects of social media consumption, however, it’s important that young people—and the adults in their lives—understand how to recognize when they are occurring.
Common negative side effects include:
- Worsening depression
- Poor self-image
- Eating disorders, or disordered eating habits
Signs that users might be entering a negative headspace include:
- Fixating on “likes,” comments, or follower count
- Starting to compare your body to images online
- Spending excessive or increasing hours on social media every day
Previously, body image issues were primarily associated with young women; we now know that anyone can face deep-seated concerns about their appearance.
“Probably the most common misconception is that this is a mostly female issue, that is definitely not true. It’s really not just about girls, once it gets going it’s really hard to stop. It becomes a mechanism for feelings and all sorts of other things like control and discipline,” says Whitlock. “People with eating disorders can’t just stop, it’s a complex set of conversations.”
Additionally, she wants to make sure people know that there is not one particular body type that will be more susceptible or help parents/caregivers or educators identify symptoms–nor can individuals rule themselves out based on their shape, weight, or build. “Eating disorders can happen no matter what body shape you have,” says Whitlock.
Continuing to have these conversations with young adults and teens is of vital importance in the development of self-esteem. “I wish people could see their bodies as amazing because of what they do, how they get us around, how they heal, and how they grow,” says Whitlock.
JED’s Mental Health Resource Center provides essential information about common challenges faced by young people—including resources for understanding and coping with social media stress. JED also created quizzes that help young people check in with themselves, so that they can identify warning signs early and learn how to seek help.
If a young person in your life might need help, contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline. For a confidential conversation with a trained counselor, text “START” to 741-741 or call 988.
Valerie Kusner is a PR/Media Relations Intern at JED and rising senior at Muhlenberg College, studying Media and Communications. She enjoys recording and editing videos of her friends and family for social media, in addition to creating mini-documentaries that shed light on contemporary life while raising awareness for issues like youth mental health and suicide prevention.