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2017 Children's Mental Health Report

Smartphones and Social Media

If this generation is going to be named after anything, the iPhone just might be it: according to a fall 2015 marketing survey, two out of three US teens owned an iPhone, about as complete a market saturation as possible for a product. The complete dominance of the smartphone among teens has had ripple effects across every area of their lives, from their social interactions to their mental health
Jean M. Twenge

Teenagers and young adults — ages 16 to 24 — are the most intense users of social media. Benefits of social media use include enhancing friendships and decreasing loneliness. But there is also evidence that overuse has a negative impact on self-esteem and satisfaction with their lives. And this social media use is also linked to an increase in mental health problems, including anxiety, depression and suicidality.

  • Nearly 90% of 16-24 year olds use the internet for social networking¹

Social media’s popularity among adolescents isn’t surprising, since it has been shown to affect the reward centers that are so active in teen brains.

  • An imaging study has shown that these regions are activated when participants viewed images with a lot of “Likes”.
  • The response is strongest when Likes are on images posted by participant
  • When viewing photographs of risky behaviors ostensibly taken and posted by peers, activation in the cognitive control network decreased²

Increased time on social media has had dramatic effects on teen behavior, including fewer risky social activities and more mental health symptoms. “Displacement” may account for these effects. If social media replaces negative activities or isolation, it can be positive. If it replaces face-to-face interaction or exercise, it can be negative.³

The good:

  • 12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than 8th-graders did in 2009.
  • Drinking, illicit drug use, and car accidents are down.
  • Ninth-graders now are 40% less sexually active and the teen birth rate is down 67 percent since 1991.
  • Less than an hour of gaming a day may have positive mental health effects.

The bad:

  • Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56% more likely to report being unhappy than those who spend less time.
  • Heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent.
  • YouTube is widely viewed by teens as a positive force, but teens report Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram increase feelings of anxiety.

Girls are disproportionately affected by the negative aspects of social media.

  • More than twice as many girls as boys said they had been cyberbullied in the last year (22% vs. 10%).
    More than twice as many girls as boys report being cyberbullied
  • Boys’ depression increased by 21% between 2012 and 2015, and girls’ increased by 50%.

There may be a hidden casualty of the constant social media onslaught: sleep.

  • Teens who spent three or more hours a day on electronic devices were 28% more likely to get less than seven hours of sleep, and teens who visited social media sites every day were 19% more likely not to get adequate sleep.

Lack of sleep can negatively affect teens’ mood, ability to think, to react, to regulate their emotions, to learn and to get along with adults. It’s a vicious cycle—lack of sleep affects mood, and depression can lead to lack of sleep. And multiple studies have found that severe sleep debt is linked to suicidal ideation.

  • Teens who don’t sleep enough are more than twice as likely to report higher levels of depressive symptoms (31% vs 12%).
  • Teens who sleep less than seven hours a night are also 68% more likely to have at least one risk factor for suicide.¹⁰

[1] Lenhart, A. (2015). Teens, Social Media Technology Overview. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved from

[2] Sherman, L. E., Payton, A. A., Hernandez, L. M., Greenfield, P. M., & Dapretto, M. (2016). The power of the “like” in adolescence. Psychological Science, 27(7), 1027–1035.

[3] Szwedo, D. E., Mikami, A. Y., & Allen, J. P. (2012). Social Networking Site Use Predicts Changes in Young Adults’ Psychological Adjustment. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 22(3), 453–466.

[4] Przybylski, A.K. (2014). Electronic gaming and psychosocial adjustment. Journal of Research on Adolescence and Pediatrics, 134 (3). doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-4021

[5] Twenge, J. M. (2017). iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy– and completely unprepared for adulthood (and what this means for the rest of us).

[6] Royal Society for Public Health (2017). Status of Mind: Social media and young people’s mental health. Retrieved from

[7] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2015. Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data. Available at:

[8] Twenge (2017).

[9] CDC (2015).

[10] Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Miech, R. A., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2016). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2015: Overview, key findings on adolescent drug use. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.