The Voice Box

Likes, Laughs, and Looming Anxiety: The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health



By: Emilie Martin, NPU Center for Parent Voice


A couple of months ago, I deactivated my Facebook. Without even thinking about it, I just shut it down and deleted the app from my phone. There was just so much toxicity, and I couldn’t seem to stay away from arguments in some misguided mission to civilize. This seemingly impulsive decision had been rattling around my head for several months – years, really, if I’m honest – stemming from a growing awareness of the negative impact it was having on my mental health.

Every time I was on any of my social media accounts – and I have quite a few – I found myself overwhelmed by feelings of anger and disgust, jealousy and judgment, and the kind of hopelessness you feel when it seems like nothing is changing in the world, no matter how hard you fight.

Gen Z is the first generation that will never know a world without constant access to the internet and Gen Alpha will never know a time where social media didn’t exist. They will never know the pain of using dial-up internet only to have the connection interrupted if someone picked up the phone. They don’t know what it’s like to type out a text using number keys, or to use an actual card catalog at the library. Our world is increasingly digital now, and there are few parts of our lives that haven’t been touched by technology.

I can’t lie – I’m mostly okay with that. Technology makes things easier in so many ways. Online banking is more convenient than actually going to the branch. Social media allows me to keep up-to-date on the happenings in my friends’ lives now that we’re all scattered across the world. I can join virtual communities to connect with people who have shared interests.

But ‘easier’ is very different from ‘not harmful.’ 

Something can be beneficial while also being detrimental to a person’s well-being. As adults, we don’t talk about our own mental health struggles enough, though many of us are getting better at it as we try to break generational patterns that have kept us emotionally distant. I was diagnosed with depression as a teenager, and I have a pretty solid handle on it. But even I will admit that my constant social media use was raising my anxiety levels and bringing up depression symptoms I hadn’t experienced in years.

I am 47 years old. If social media can have this effect on an adult who, presumably, knows better than to let what I see online bother me, what impact is it having on teenagers?

The statistics about social media use and youth mental health are alarming. We took a deep dive into this topic in our latest policy paper – which can be found HERE and is worth the read – and research shows that 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45% say they are online “almost constantly.” In 2020, teens spending more than three hours a day on social media were found to be at a higher risk for mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

Social media platforms are designed to keep users engaged and interacting for as long as possible. Technology companies use addictive algorithms to show you targeted content that keeps you scrolling through a carefully cultivated feed. Constant exposure to curated images of perfection can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy because it fosters social comparison, creating a skewed perception of reality and making people think they are failing in some way. Perhaps more insidious, however, is the way the internet provides the kind of anonymity that makes people feel brave and bold.

Online interactions don’t hold the same social responsibility as face-to-face ones, which typically demand civility and a modicum of respect. Instead, the internet gives people the audacity to say things to others that they would never say in person, which can quickly turn into cyberbullying. All of this would have an impact on anyone but for teenagers with still developing brains, the effects can be devastating to their mental health.

I’ve since reactivated my Facebook because not having one was placing limitations on how effective I could be in my role at NPU. But I did so only after establishing clear boundaries for myself to keep it from having such an impact on my life. I choose my battles more carefully now, because I don’t need to attend every argument I’m invited to. It’s all about balance.

I’m not trying to demonize social media. Platforms offer opportunities for connection and self-expression, and many people use the internet to locate resources to help them. But we still need to recognize the harm that it can cause as well. More than that, we need to start teaching our children how to safely navigate the digital landscape in an increasingly digital world, and the responsibility to teach those skills lies with all of us. We have an obligation to our children to keep them safe, and helping them learn digital literacy and safety is crucial.

It is a complex issue, with no easy, one-size-fits-all answer. Even as adults, we can struggle to separate fiction from reality when it comes to what we see online. So, how do we help our children understand that what they see online and in real life can be very different things? How do we teach them to protect themselves from cyberbullies? How do we ensure that our children spend less time lost in digital space, and more time engaged in life offline?