Mental Health Education

The Digital Dilemma: Depression, Teens, and Social Media

Alexis Younes
October 24, 2023
May 9, 2024
min read

Have you met any teenager, or any person who has gone through their teenage years, who said it was easy? That they loved the mood swings, irritability, bodily changes, worrying about how others may be perceiving them, etc.?

You see your teen experiencing moodiness or irritability and attribute it to their hormonal changes. You realize they are sleeping a lot more or a lot less and think they are just being “lazy” or “on their phone all night”. You notice they’re eating more or not eating much at all and think they are just “growing”. Instead of doing things they enjoy, you see that they are distancing themselves away from everyone around them and think they just don’t like anyone’s company. Instead of having a reason for everything, have you stopped to ask yourself if your teen might be depressed? 

Ask yourself the following questions, over the last two weeks:

  1. Has your teen been experiencing sadness, anxiety, or worry?
  2. Any feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of hurting themselves?
  3. Change in appetite, mood, or sleep?
  4. Do they get irritable, angry or moody easily?
  5. Are they disinterested in activities they once enjoyed? Doing worse in school?
  6. Are they isolating themselves from friends and family?

If you answered ‘yes’ to most of these questions, your teen might be experiencing depression. This is more normal than you might think (unfortunately) and the cause(s) can vary depending on what your teen is going through. Stressors like school, peer pressure, peer conflict, puberty, trying to figure out who they are, are amongst some of the factors contributing to their depression. A leading cause that can drive a teen’s depression is social media usage - let me explain how and why.

Teens between 13 and 18 years old average about 8 hours and 39 minutes A DAY! That’s more than a traditional 9am-5pm working day, all spent on social media. When you think about it that way, it’s quite alarming how much time they are dedicating to their phones and on social media rather than experiencing life in real time. Below are some outcomes that result from overuse of social media and the impact it may have on your teen:

  1. Cyberbullying - This statistic might scare you, but about 46% of 13-17 year old teens have experienced at least one account of bullying or harassment online. Wondering what the leading cause was? Predominantly physical appearance. When we are scrolling through social media, the content that pops up isn’t only pages that we personally followed, but now suggestions the app makes for us. If all we see on our feed is pretty girls or boys, on top of being cyber bullied, this can lead to depression, low self-esteem and self-worth, amongst other issues. Apps can be a dark hole for some people if they do not monitor how much they’re using it and the content they are seeing. Controlling what you see, who you connect with, and how long you spend on these apps is a level of self-control most teens do not possess. 
  2. Disrupted sleep - Teens need about 8-10 hours of sleep a night. I remember growing up, I would sleep 14 hours, easy, and other nights I’d pull an all nighter. I think this goes to saying for just about everyone, when you don’t get enough sleep it throws everything off: your energy, motivation, concentration, etc. and can lead to depression or other mood disorders. Sleep hygiene is so important. Creating a routine that helps you wind down can be a game changer in fixing your sleep. When we are ready for bed, our first thing to do is hop on our phone and scroll. The blue light exuding from our phones can actually disrupt your sleep rhythm because it’s alerting your body that there is still light. Making the switch to the dark or nighttime filter can help aide in this. You tell yourself you’ll only spend a few minutes scrolling before you actually go to sleep, but it ends up being hours and when you are finally ready to settle down, you realize you can’t. 
  3. Social isolation - Some teens may struggle with in person social interaction and find solace in being behind their phone to talk to others. I’m not saying interacting with others online is a bad thing, but if we are isolating ourselves and not speaking with others in person that can have a negative impact on one’s mood and self-esteem. In this developmental stage, teens put more of an emphasis on friends rather than family, and fitting in is so important. If your teen doesn’t feel like they belong, or are having negative social interactions, it may lead them to completely isolate themselves.
  4. Distractions - Instead of facing their problems head on, using technology and going on social media apps can be a distraction away from reality. They take in so much visual content by endlessly scrolling and before they know it, hours have passed. They get stuck inside a vacuum which can be difficult to get themselves out of. When faced with depression, it can feel difficult to motivate themselves to get tasks done; which makes picking up the phone a whole lot easier. 

There are benefits to utilizing social media, when used in a positive way. It’s a great way to connect with people and to make friends worldwide, right at your fingertips. When you are in need of support, instead of having to schedule a time to hang out with your friend, you can shoot them a text or a quick FaceTime call. There are online support groups and online communities that can help you feel connected, supported, heard, and validated. It can also be quite the escape if what you are experiencing at home or in school is too much. Just like chocolate and sweets, they are good in moderation, but when we start to stuff our face daily with it, that’s when you start to realize the long-term effects. Social media is the same way - the more time we spend on it (depending on the content as well), the more fuel you’re adding to the fire. 

If your teen is experiencing depression, they are not alone in this. It can be a good time to talk to them about getting set up with a therapist to talk and work through it. Be their support, not an added stressor. Limiting screen time and encouraging family time can increase in social and loving connection. Medication can also be a potential route to take - we love therapy in conjunction with medication - but I like to try the therapy route first to provide resources and tools for their toolbox.

Check in with your teen and see how they are really doing; and instead of making up reasons for their behavior yourself, I wonder what it would be like if you would just ask them. You may be surprised with what they have to say.

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