The impact of social media on teen mental health


Caroline Kelly, Copy Editor

“WE MAKE BODY IMAGES WORSE FOR ONE IN THREE TEEN GIRLSexclaims a single page amongst the stack of Facebook’s research findings on mental health. As social media platforms have become breeding grounds for toxic comparison and perfectionism, Facebook has been called upon to address its detrimental effects on teen mental health. 

Research that connects Facebook and mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, is not new. Facebook began to see a decline of teen users in 2012, but the company’s purchase of Instagram ensured that this demographic would remain engaged. Facebook financially relies on people using the app for as many hours a day as possible, profiting off the personal information and vulnerabilities of its users. In 2012, Facebook and Cornell University conducted a study in which they manipulated users’ emotions by changing the content that appeared on their feed or “home page.” Over 689,000 people were unknowingly exploited, as their feeds were filled with solely negative or positive words. Based on the frequency of the users’ status updates, researchers determined that the emotional environment curated on social media has the power to affect how one feels in general socially. Ultimately, the study served as an awakening, sparking people to question Facebook’s power to exploit our mental well-being for their own profit. In a 2020 survey conducted by Facebook, a United States female teen states, “I’ve had to stop myself looking at Instagram in the morning because it has so much power to shape how I feel, so I try to give myself the time to set my own day.” Most people aimlessly scroll through social media apps as a way to relax. Content on Instagram ​directly influences one’s self-confidence and is linked to depression and suicidal thoughts. Is this on us? We choose to continue using social media. Or, should Facebook be held responsible?

Recently, whistleblower Francis Haugan has confirmed that Facebook is aware of how to tap into the minds of users. Facebook argues that the data of its detrimental mental health effects on teens are “subjective,” “taken out of context,” and “quite small,” which starkly contrasts both internal and external research. Facebook claims that only some feel as if their mental health is affected by social media and that the data is solely qualitative, focusing on a limited amount of people at a single point in time. However, the data falls in line with outside research. Melissa Hunt, the Associate Director of Clinical Training in University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychology, created a study in which a randomly assigned group of undergraduate students were split into two groups: one that continued to use social media apps as usual and another that was limited to solely ten minutes per day on each social media app. Results determined that the group with limited screen time reported fewer instances of loneliness and depression in comparison to those who continued with their usual social media usage. 

Social media will only continue to become more of an integral part of our lives, especially as mobile applications gather more of our personal information, detecting our vulnerabilities and insecurities. It is important, as Haugan argues, to ensure that social media companies like Facebook assume responsibility and take action to protect people’s well-being. Facebook must start with transparency, addressing the blaring alarm of  WE MAKE BODY IMAGES WORSE FOR ONE IN THREE TEEN GIRLS,one of many research findings on the impact of social media on teen mental health. 

Photo credits: ChildMind.Org