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Teens, Technology Use, and Mental Health

anxiety depression mental health social media technology teenagers Mar 30, 2022

Are today’s teens and young adults at risk of developing depression and anxiety due to our constant use of technology, screen time, and social media? And does this impact their alcohol and drug use or abuse? How can parents encourage healthy use of technology and better coping mechanisms that will enhance teens’ mental health rather than create more problems for them in the future?

In an age when 95% of teens have a mobile device, and 45% of those teens are constantly using them, we need to be looking at the risks of social media and screen time that can lead to an increased use of drugs and alcohol. Studies show that just 2 hours of daily screen time is a tipping point to unhappiness for teens. Whether they are affected by general anxiety about social media, body image issues, feelings of being left out, or peer pressure to fit in, all of these examples can lead to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and depression, and if they do not know how to handle these feelings in a healthy way or have an adequate support system, this can lead to substance abuse and more reactionary behaviors.

Some of the issues currently being studied are how different types of anxiety lead to different substance use. For example, social anxiety when amplified by real life or digital experiences, can lead to binge drinking, and separation anxiety, or the loss of a specific person, can lead to drug use. There are also measurable gender differences related to how and when anxiety is experienced and the ways in which males or females turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. Women with anxiety are more likely to use pills and drink alcohol, while males are more likely to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Because students’ self-worth, feelings of inclusion and importance, and also feeling left out are so reliant on social media and screen time for validation, this creates an endless feedback loop of looking to outward sources for self-worth and validation. A teenager can take a perfectly-posed selfie, post it online to get positive reactions which boosts their self-esteem, which makes them more reliant on social media and technology for approval and feelings of worth.

Another problem with unmonitored teenage use of technology is exposure to harmful content online. Viral sharing of memes that show unhealthy or destructive behavior is par for the course online, and most kids are unable to tell the difference between credible or unreliable sources of social media posts. They might see something they think is super cool in a YouTube video and try to recreate dangerous activities on their own to win points with their friends. “Influencers” on YouTube and Instagram are often sources of information for teens, but teens don’t recognize the bias or sponsored point of view that is being modeled.

Of course, there are steps that parents can take to mitigate the risks of teens using social media. They can limit access and monitor their teens’ usage, and start a dialogue about how to be safe and healthy online. However, one of the problems today is that most parents might not understand the content or the risks of what their kids are seeing online. They might not be aware of the correlation between screen time and mental health, especially if they have little access to technology due to socio-economic factors or cultural factors.

One of the ways we at the County level can help to educate teens and parents about the risks of technology use and substance abuse is to start a conversation around these topics. We can talk to parents about their concerns and listen to their experiences with setting boundaries around social media and screen time. And we can help to educate them about the risks of screen time and anxiety, depression, and substance use, while they can in turn talk to their children about their own technology use.

Parents and relatives can also help their teens by modeling healthy behavior with their devices – taking breaks, putting their phones away at dinner, making time to be present with their loved ones and not stuck in a screen. At the end of the day, these are the moments that matter more than the ones spent on a device.