The Digital Dilemma: Teens, anxiety, and social media

Alexis Younes
September 22, 2023
September 22, 2023
min read

Instagram. Snapchat. Facebook (do teens still use Facebook??). Pinterest. Reddit. Tiktok. Youtube. What do these all have in common? Your teen’s constant attention. They live, breathe, and exist for the sound of their notifications going off, the innate gesture to pick up their phones immediately for their daily dose of dopamine. When I was growing up, my daily dopamine hits came from hanging out with the neighborhood kids from the moment we got home from school until it was dinnertime. Now I’m in a unique position where I had experiences with and without social media use. When I was in middle school and high school, that’s when Snapchat and Instagram were really taking off and I recognized my own personal struggles with it, even to this day. 

Now we can’t confidently say that social media causes anxiety. There are so many factors that play a role in feeling anxious, especially for a teen who is already struggling. What we can say is that social media can play a role in your teen experiencing anxiety. Anxiety can come in one of two forms: generalized, which is when you feel anxiety out of the blue and for no apparent reason, or it can be more situational where you can identify a trigger. As a parent, you may or may not notice if your teen is experiencing anxiety unless it’s communicated or you notice it in their behaviors. 

If you’re wondering if your teen is experiencing any anxiety, open a conversation with them by asking the following questions:
  • How have you really been doing lately?
  • Are there any stressors in your life that are making you feel anxious?
  • Do you ever experience anxiety? If so, what is that like for you?
  • Do you have a hard time controlling your worries?
  • Have you noticed your mind going blank or struggling to sleep?
  • How much of this worry comes from what you see on social media? 

Many people see teens glued to their phones as problematic and that they are being ‘brainwashed’ or ‘wasting their time’. This debate is a hot topic as people are quick to think of social media usage as negative, when in reality it can be a positive thing to indulge in when used in moderation. I think it’s difficult to find that seamless balance, especially for a teenager who is worried about fitting in, forming their identity, and putting their friends on a pedestal over everyone else.

For the purpose of this topic, we are going to analyze through some of the negative impacts of social media use and teen’s experiencing anxiety (don’t worry, be on the lookout for a blog post on the positive effects of social media in the near future). 

1. Teen’s are notorious for comparing themselves already with people they see in person, but can you imagine having an even bigger audience, worldwide in fact, to compare yourself to? Not everything that is posted online is what it may seem. People post what they want people to see and the viewers may believe they are ‘perfect’ and never go through challenges in life. 

2. Bullying is still prevalent throughout school, but with access to social media and online technology it opens up the possibility for cyberbullying to happen as well. Did you know that from surveying around 6,000 individuals, about 50% of 10-18 year olds have had at least one cyberbullying incident? That statistic is quite terrifying, let alone all the other statistics they’ve found from recent research on cyberbullying. To keep your teen safe, have open conversations about what’s going on in their life and if they are experiencing any conflict with someone online or in person. You can also aim to limit what they see and how long they spend on social media.

3. Teen’s may feel left out and get some serious FOMO (fear of missing out). Been there, hated that! There is nothing worse than not being invited to something and then seeing all the fun posted online. This can lead to many spiraling thoughts and overthinking about themselves and their relationships with their friends. We don’t want to miss out on life or fun and seeing it all online can make things feel 100x worse.

4. Looking for those immediate dopamine hits by obsessing over the amount of likes, shares, or comments they receive on their posts. Teen’s may take content down or overthink their posts if they don’t get the ratings they are hoping for. This can lead down a path where teen’s will look for external validation constantly, which can lead to a negative feedback loop of needing constant attention to feel good about ourselves.

5. Issues with their self-image and self-confidence. This goes hand in hand with comparing themselves to others. They may see others their age with expensive items, going on trips, having the ‘perfect’ body, living their best life then looking upon their own life and seeing where they are going wrong. They might start experiencing self-doubt, decrease self-esteem, and less confidence in themselves just because they looked at a picture or video of someone they may or may not even know.

6. Being exposed to triggering content and false information. If they are already struggling with something or have previous traumatic experiences, something may pop up on their social media that can trigger them and make things worse. They may not have as much control over what they see unless they personally go in and block or report the content shown, but that would be after the damage has been done. Something that can also happen is the spread of false information. There are people online who are spewing ‘knowledge’ on how to lose 15 pounds in one week and how to make yourself mentally healthy by following 3 simple rules. It’s hard to figure out what is true and what isn’t.

7. Teen’s sleep patterns and routine can be disrupted. Teen’s need around 8-10 hours of sleep a night to maintain their health, feel energized, and concentrate better. If you notice your teen feeling irritable or falling asleep during the day, check on their sleep hygiene. They may be staying up late at night scrolling through TikTok or Instagram and lose track of time.

It can be great practice to do a weekly check in with your teen to be aware of their mental health standing, and to improve on your trust and communication. This is an opportunity to be there for your teen, but not be too controlling or overbearing to where they feel that they can’t come and talk to you about what’s going on. I wish I had a parent to talk to when I was a teen who would understand the struggles of anxiety and social media. I had to figure everything out on my own, but your teen doesn’t have to navigate through this alone.

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