Teenagers’ mental health is deteriorating — and social media might have something to do with it

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Concerns are growing over teenagers’ mental health, particularly regarding social media’s potentially negative impact. In academia and in the media, increased attention is being paid to the issue.

Mental health, across ages and generations, should be understood as a public health issue; public health is about promoting healthy lifestyles as much as it is about preventing and responding to diseases. Because mental health issues affect people’s physical and emotional well-being, managing mental health issues is central to public health goals. 

Untreated or unrecognized mental health problems may affect all aspects of an individual’s health, not least their emotional well-being and social development. Teenagers, in particular,  may be left feeling socially isolated and unable to make vocational, social, or interpersonal contributions to society; in short, it’s a public health threat.

In recent news, the correlation between social media and mental health issues has gradually garnered more attention. In fact, a recent study by ExpressVPN found that 86% of teens reported changes to their happiness due to social media. This could be interpreted in a number of ways, but one question we need to ask ourselves, is how much of a role does social media play in mental health, and what are the most occuring issues?

The most common teen mental health issues

According to established research, around 70 percent of mental health disorders were present in individuals before they reached 25, meaning that the adolescent years are a critical period for promoting mental wellness. It should be noted that teenagers, during this time, can be affected by mental health disorders of all kinds, including those more commonly associated with adulthood. However, several distinct aspects of mental health may be more affected during adolescence, and several conditions are more prevalent across adolescence:

Emotional disorders 

Emotional disorders are psychological disorders that are predominantly characterized by  “maladjustive emotional reactions that are inappropriate or disproportionate to their cause”, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology. These emotional disorders are common in teenagers. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that 3.6 percent of 10 to 14 year-olds and 4.6 percent of 15 to 19 year-olds experience anxiety disorders.

Eating disorders

Societal pressures may make teenagers, who are particularly prone to be influenced by dominant ideals, more likely to develop eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. Eating disorders occur across the gender spectrum and are characterized by abnormal eating behaviors and a preoccupation with food; most often, this is linked to concerns about body size and weight. 

Behavioral disorders

More likely to be diagnosed in younger adolescents than in older adolescents, behavioral disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder (CD), are among the most common teen mental health issues. Behavioral disorders are characterized by a pattern of disruptive and destructive behaviors that last for six or more months.

According to the WHO, an estimated one in seven 10 to 19 year-olds (14 percent) “experience mental health conditions, yet these remain largely unrecognized and untreated.”

How social media may exacerbate teen mental health issues

It’s no secret that teenagers and social media go hand-in-hand. A plethora of information and research shows that while social media platforms may help adolescents form the peer relationships that are crucial to the formative brain and personality, there are a number of troubling downsides. 

For one, social media has been shown to be addictive; likes and other interactions activate certain areas of the brain, the same reward areas that are activated when we see people we love or win prizes. Dopamine release proves to be a powerful motivator and is likely a factor in social media addiction. 

The study on Gen Z’s social media habits show that 61 percent are concerned about social media addiction. Respondents to the international survey also noted that other aspects of their emotional well-being were impacted by social media, including their levels of anxiety and self-esteem.

Teens who are predisposed to eating disorders may find that social media provides ample influence. 

Solving these challenges is a matter of greater awareness followed by public health measures and messaging that aim to remove some of the power social media has over teenagers and young adults. There is no straightforward solution to these issues, but as the body of evidence grows showing the impact on teenage mental health, it’s becoming more pressing.

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