Social Media and Mental Health: A New Advisory Offers Guidelines for Adolescents

By Milo Jones | Posted May 15, 2023

On May 9, in the first guidance of its kind, the American Psychological Association released its “Health advisory on social media use in adolescence.” While examining the potential benefits and harms of social media on the “social, educational, psychological, and neurological development” of teens and tweens, the advisory offers 10 recommendations for stakeholders to help these young people develop “healthy” social media habits.

“This comes at a time when teenagers are facing high rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness,” commented NPR correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff on the day the advisory was released. “There’s mounting evidence that social media can exacerbate and even cause these problems.”

Doucleff was referencing psychologist Jean Twenge. In her 2017 book iGen, Twenge argued that the alarming rise in depression, anxiety, and loneliness among teens around the year 2012 was due to the introduction of smartphones. The first iPhone was introduced in 2007, followed by the first Android phone in 2008. By 2012, smartphones were being used by most Americans. Thus, Twenge characterized iGen’ers (the internet generation) as “addicted to their phones and miserable.”


The Misery of Social Media

How can social media make adolescents—and also adults—miserable? The new advisory discusses many reasons, but three stand out as especially pertinent.

The first is how social media use “can impair [one’s] ability to engage” other people. Thus, its use “should not restrict opportunities to practice in-person reciprocal social interactions,” nor should its use “contribute to psychological avoidance” of those interactions. 

This problem was discussed on NPR’s Short Wave on May 10. Scientist-in-Residence Regina Barber was hosting when she shared a question she recently asked her daughter: “Why don’t you just walk over to your friend’s house and knock on the door like I used to when I was a kid?” Her daughter’s reply was startling: “People don’t do that anymore.”

So, what happens when you hang out with Facebook “friends” instead of in-person ones? You engage another cause for misery: the highlight reels. “A lot on social media is a highlight reel of people’s lives,” said NPR’s Doucleff. “It’s not reality. Studies show that when teens compare themselves to these images, it can cause depression.” Especially in high school girls, 30 percent of whom considered suicide in 2021, according to the latest CDC data.

But while the advisory targets adolescents’ “use of social media for social comparison, particularly around beauty- or appearance-related content,” adults are affected too. A recent CVS Health poll found that 60 percent of 18- to 32-year-olds blame social media for negatively impacting their mental health. “We’re looking at other people’s highlight reels, and we’re comparing it to, potentially, our lowest selves,” explained a CVS Health manager.

When these reels trap both adolescents and adults in a cycle of “endless scrolling” (picture a gerbil in a wheel), a third cause for misery can emerge: a disruption in healthy sleep cycles. As the advisory points out, “Technology use … within one hour of bedtime, and social media use in particular, is associated with sleep disruption,” which in turn affects “emotional functioning.” Specific to adolescents is the problem of insufficient sleep hindering their “neurological development,” creating another risk factor for suicide.


An Inherently Neutral Medium?

The APA’s new advisory begins by clarifying the neutrality of social media, stating that it “is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people.” Its potential to benefit or harm, rather, depends on one’s “personal and psychological characteristics and social circumstances.”

In other words, social media tends to make a good person better and a bad person worse. This characterization, however, is not only oversimplified but ignores a biblical truth about all humans: “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). 

If “man” includes every human, then the Jew has little advantage over the Greek. As the apostle Paul stated, “Both Jews and Greeks … are all under sin” (Romans 3:9). Without divine help, we are all subject to sinful tendencies, whether we are born into a stable home or a broken one. No wonder Scripture says that “a child left to himself brings shame to his mother” (Proverbs 29:15); without proper guidance, the evil in his nature will, inevitably, override the good.

[PQ HERE] Because our “flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41), we must guard ourselves and our children from any media that arouses carnal feelings. For some of us, that means plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand (5:29, 30), figuratively speaking. If Facebook “causes you to sin … cast it from you”!

Note the context of Jesus’ words: looking lustfully at a woman (vv. 27, 28). Never mind the clickbait in a newsfeed or the selfie posted for Likes and Comments.

Surprisingly, the APA forgot to mention anything about pornography in their new advisory, limiting harmful content to what promotes “self-harm,” “harm to others,” and “cyberhate,” the latter being all about discrimination. They also seem out of touch when it comes to tech companies generating healthy content. One state senator, who filed a resolution to protect minors online, believes that “social media companies use algorithms to generate profits by prioritizing prolonged engagement, even if it’s knowingly harmful to the mental well-being of the user.”

However, the advisory hits the mark when it states that adults must set the example. Their “orientation and attitudes toward social media … may affect adolescents’ own use of social media.” Thus, “adults’ own use of social media in youths’ presence should also be carefully considered.” 

Have you become a slave to online algorithms? “Freedom from Addictions” is a resource that can help. 

Milo Jones
Milo Jones is a freelance writer for Amazing Facts International and lives in College Place, Washington.
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