This essay from Common Sense Media is included in Social Media, Gaming and Mental Health, our 2019 Children’s Mental Health Report.

At Common Sense, we frequently wrestle with questions about the effects of smartphones and social media on teens. What is all this tech use doing to teens’ well-being? Our own research survey, Social Media, Social Life, shows that twice as many 13- to 17-year-olds own a smartphone today than they did just six years ago (41% in 2012 compared to 89% in 2018.) During that same period, the percentage of teens who use social media multiple times a day also doubled, from 34% to 70% (Rideout & Robb, 2018).

Concerns over the negative consequences of social media have grown in tandem with its popularity. Grim reports on teen suicide, addiction, cyberbullying and eroding social skills have caused parents, teachers and the tech industry itself to look at social media as a potential contributor to these issues. But looking only at the relationship between how much social media teens use and their levels of anxiety and depression does not consider different teens’ experiences.

It’s certainly possible that the internet can cause vulnerable teens to become more depressed, anxious or isolated. But at the same time, teens who are already experiencing mental health problems are finding support and resources on the internet. Many teens and young adults who experience depression are seeking out health information online and using digital tools to help address their problems (Rideout & Fox, 2018). And according to Social Media, Social Life, very few teens say that using social media has a negative effect on how they feel about themselves; many more say it has a positive effect.

Where does that leave parents who worry about their children’s social media use? There are no easy answers. Less time on social media may be beneficial for some. Cleaning up social feeds to remove accounts that cause stress and sadness and following people who enrich mental well-being are steps that teens can take, with parents’ help if appropriate. But let’s remember this: as we adapt to new ways of communicating, we must continue to listen to teens’ voices with empathy and openness.

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