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A Teen's View on How Social Media Affects Mental Health

My friends and I talk all the time about how much we hate Snapchat, or how we’re sick of Instagram. The truth is, these platforms can shape our behavior in ways that contribute negatively to mental health. And it can be really hard to stop using them, even if we understand the consequences.

Social media can affect our mental health for a few reasons. First, while I joke about being “addicted to my phone,” social media can form an actual addiction. When we use our phones, especially for social media purposes, we make social connections and receive lots of new information. This triggers a release of dopamine in our brain, essentially rewarding us. Since our brain has rewarded the phone-checking behavior, we are motivated to do it again, thus creating a cycle of constantly checking our phones (Haynes). The problem is that the more time you spend on your phone, the less time you spend doing other things, like going outside, reading books, and most importantly, hanging out with your friends.

Humans are naturally social creatures, so much so that a loss of social connection triggers the same brain regions as physical pain (Newport). Teenagers need to have these social needs met in order to support their well-being. Social media is tricky because it disguises itself as a social activity, but virtual socialization is not the same as in-person socialization. The hard part is that the brain believes these social interactions, virtual and in-person, to be equal in value, but they’re not. Virtual socialization, on social media, only makes someone think they are being social. But they aren’t fostering any real connections, just tricking their brain (Newport).

Social media can also influence our mental health by being a breeding ground for comparison. Upward social comparison, or comparison to someone you perceive to be better than you, can negatively affect self-esteem and cause insecurity. In fact, a study found that comparison on social media can contribute to body dysmorphia and eating disorders (Behm-Morawitz and Lewallen). Social comparison is particularly harmful on social media because people curate their profiles, so they showcase only the most positive aspects of their lives. This can leave you comparing yourself to a highly-idealistic version of someone else’s life (Parnell).

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If I had a dollar for every time an adult told me to “stop spending so much time on that damn phone,” I’d be a millionaire. But even though that comment is condescending, and doesn’t acknowledge the complexity of the issue, it is actually good advice.

Here are three action items you can try to “stop spending so much time on that damn phone” that are manageable, effective, and can improve your overall well-being.

  1. The best way to change your behavior is to reframe the purpose of social media. In the book Digital Minimalism, author Cal Newport calls this approach Conversation Centric Communication. Essentially, “Connection is no longer an alternative to conversation; it’s instead its supporter.” All forms of connection, texting, emails, social media, should be with the intention of setting up a real-life conversation. Instead of texting a friend about recent gossip, text them about when they are free to grab coffee and talk in-person. This approach revises the purpose of digital connection to preference in-person connections.
  2. Eliminate phone use while in social situations. Human instinct desires the highest quantity of social connections, but we’re pretty bad at distinguishing between the quality of those connections. This is why you may find yourself mindlessly checking your phone, even when they are spending time with friends. If you are intentional about turning off your phone, or leaving it in another room, the quality of your social connection with your friend will improve drastically.
  3. Be intentional about how you spend your free time. There is a myth that endlessly scrolling on social media is a relaxing, recharging activity. But oftentimes it makes you feel like you’ve wasted time and you feel more tired. It can be difficult to stop this habit because of the addiction to social media, so you have to be intentional about how you spend your free time. It’s more rewarding to spend your leisure time doing ‘hard’ things, like making art, reading, or work out, instead of watching tv. The best thing to do is pick a hobby that you love and deliberately set aside time for it. As you spend more free time doing that thing you enjoy, your phone will naturally become a less desirable alternative.

Sources and recommended reading:

September 14, 2020
Megan D. and Sydney V. | High-School Seniors

Megan D. and Sydney V. | High-School Seniors

Megan D. is a senior at Eastside Prep with an interest in writing, social justice, and data science. She is passionate about understanding the relationship between social media and teenage mental health and has recently completed an independent study on the topic.

Sydney V. is a senior at Eastside Prep and a member of Joon's Student Advisory Board. She is interested in math, computer science, and applying STEM to important issues like mental health, in addition to writing and running.

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