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How social media can affect your teen’s mental health

Young girl mental health
Written by Paul Taylor

QUESTION: I’m worried that my teenage daughter is spending far too much time on Snapchat, Instagram and other social media. Is this stuff bad for her mental health? And should I be thinking about taking away her cellphone?

ANSWER: Simply taking away her phone is probably not the best thing to do. But before considering other options, it’s worthwhile reviewing what the scientific evidence says about the effects of social media on mental health.

So far, research studies haven’t definitely shown that the use of social media can cause depression or other mental-health disorders, says Dr. Carolyn Boulos, a child and adolescent psychiatrist.

However, she adds, if a young person already has an underlying mental-health problem, then this type of activity could make it worse.

Dr. Boulos, an assistant professor at University of Toronto Medical School, treats youth at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

Among her patients, she’s recently noticed that Facebook use has declined, while photo-sharing sites such as Instagram and Snapchat have soared in popularity.

The growing emphasis on images, which can be digitally altered, represents a troubling trend. “Youth are interpreting the world according to what they see on social media. People are being judged more and more on how they look,” says Dr. Boulos. This could have negative implications for kids with low self-esteem.

Seeing peers post images of social gatherings can make some feel excluded.

“Those who are socially anxious or depressed, may feel even worse when they see people out there apparently having a fantastic life,” she adds.

A British study of 1,500 youths, aged 14 to 24, found that Instagram and Snapchat were the forms of social media most associated with the possible development of low self-esteem, poor body image, lack of sleep and feelings of being left out.

Social media also provide platforms for cyber-bullying at an unprecedented scale – hurtful images and words can literally go viral. The risk of “internet addiction” is another concern, interfering with schoolwork and sleep.

But digital communications are not all bad, insists Dr. Boulos. They can be used to build supportive communities among people with shared interests or similar medical issues. For instance, “people with disabilities have an opportunity to be socially involved in ways that were not possible years ago.”

What’s more, there’s now a host of mobile apps to help treat various conditions including depression, anxiety, poor sleep and much more. Some of these apps have been developed by medical organizations.

So, although social media poses a potential risk to some vulnerable individuals, it also holds the promise of readily available antidotes.  After all, most kids carry around their cellphones.

Dr. Boulos often recommends mental-health apps to her patients and encourages them to search for helpful ones.

“If they are feeling uncomfortable or anxious, they can pull out their cellphone to look at an app that offers ways to relax – such as breathing exercises or even watching dog videos.”

This approach, which is used by a growing number of mental-health professionals, gives patients “more autonomy and another tool to help themselves,” says Dr. Boulos.

“Apps are definitely a way to augment care in between health appointments,” says Dr. Niraj Mistry, a Toronto pediatrician who recently completed an assessment of anxiety-related apps for the Ontario Telemedicine Network, which posts app reviews online so physicians can make informed recommendations to their patients.

With all that said, let’s now return to the question you posed: Should you take away your daughter’s cellphone?

Dr. Boulos suggests that you should have a conversation with your daughter and present your concerns – whether they are about getting adequate sleep or her performance at school. Ask your daughter for her input on how to deal with these issues – such as a setting a reasonable time to stop using screens.

“Discussing ahead of time, rather than demanding the phone, helps decrease arguments as the parent can refer to the previous agreement of a particular time,” she explains.

For this strategy to work, Dr. Boulos says parents must serve as good role models.

“If you want your kids to do something different, then you have to set the example,” she says. “You have to go for a walk and sit down to a meal with kids without a cellphone next to you.”

Of course, that can be a tall order considering that our attachment to cellphones cuts across generations. Many parents are hooked on their devices, too.

About the author


Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor, Sunnybrook’s Patient Navigation Advisor, provides advice and answers questions from patients and their families, relying heavily on medical and health experts. Email your questions to AskPaul@sunnybrook.ca
and follow me on Twitter @epaultaylor