There are many challenges to adolescent development, with social media increasingly becoming the latest revolution in human interaction, allowing people to stay connected and stay up-to-date in an ever-changing world in real-time. Social circles have been expanded, presenting exposure to new cultures, ideas, and relationships. Additional benefits include being able to connect to loved ones and friends across distance in ways unimaginable to previous generations. However, the increase in quantity and ease of maintaining relationships does not necessarily correlate with quality, and research suggests that a higher frequency of social media use correlates to a lower sense of emotional support (Shensa et al., 2016). This paper presents how social media is directly or indirectly a factor is multiple areas negatively affecting adolescent well-being.
The number of young Americans experiencing mental health challenges has seen a significant rise in the last decade, and this decline has coincided with the rapid rise of social media. Twenge et al. (2019) reviewed responses from over 200,000 adolescents from the ages of 12 to 17 from the years of 2005 to 2017, and over 400,000 adults from the years 2008 to 2017. From 2005 to 2017, the rate of reported symptoms among adolescents consistent with major depression increased 52%. Young adults fared worse, reporting an increase of 63% from 2009 to 2017. Twenge et al. (2019) found a 71% increase in young adults experiencing serious psychological distress from 2008 to 2017 and a 47% increase among young adults with suicidal thoughts or other suicide-related outcomes for the same period.
Not only does social media negatively affect mood, but the increase in social media use has also correlated to shallowing of cognitive and moral shallowness (Annisette & Lafreniere, 2017). Madore et al. (2020), studied 80 young adults to explore differences in the ability to maintain attention by studying how well the subjects were able to identify a gradual change in an image. Media multitasking was assessed by having participants describe how well they could commit to multiple media sources, such as texting and watching television within a given hour. The researchers compared memory performance between participants, and found that individuals with lower sustained attention ability and heavier media multitaskers both performed worse on memory tasks. With teens using social media at an ever-increasing rate, and algorithms in applications specifically designed to keep a user tied to the platform, the landscape is a perilous one concerning adolescent development, with cognitive and emotional challenges becoming apparent.
Cognitive and moral shallowness are concerns enough (Annisette & Lafreniere, 2017), but it is also important to examine the content adolescents are viewing. An adolescent being unable to accurately understand and evaluate the information they are exposed to will influence every area of life, including peer relationships and identity formation, both critical components of this stage of development. Technology has created a reality where access to content traditionally considered to be of an adult nature is only a fingertip away.
Bark, a company that monitors online activities of tweens and teens state the following information for online exposure of teens: 94.1% have expressed or experienced violent subject matter or thoughts, 66.3% have engaged in conversations about depression, 82% experienced bullying as a bully, victim or witness, 91.1% engaged in conversations about drugs or alcohol, 66.6% were involved in self-harm or suicidal situation, and 87.9% encountered nudity or content of a sexual nature (Bark’s Annual Report, 2020). With reduced cognitive and relationship skills and an increase in exposure to complex and potentially troublesome content, it is no surprise there is a mental health crisis in young adults in the United States, with anxiety (60.7%), depression (48.6%), and stress (47%) leading the mental health struggles for college students using counseling services (LeViness et al., 2019). There are many ways in which social media is problematic to adolescent development, and “large studies consistently find that more frequent digital-media use is associated with lower well-being among adolescents,” (Twenge, 2019). Kelly et al., (2018) found four criteria make up an increase in depressive symptoms associated with social media use. These are poor sleep, online harassment, poor self-esteem, and body image. These areas relate to an increase in depressive symptoms when social media is used. These areas will be examined in further depth and discussed using data provided by RemedyLive.
This paper examines how the influence of current cultural pressures, online socializing, and other social influences can have a detrimental effect on adolescent health. There will be a literature review of current research, followed by results shared based on data from the RemedyLive Get Schooled Tour. Finally, a discussion exploring how social media is a common link in the majority of challenges faced by adolescents.
1.1 Social Media and Self-Esteem
A positive self-image is an important factor in living a happy life, especially for an adolescent where identity is the primary factor in development. Today, adolescents are viewing their peers' lives on social media, as well as following social media influencers, exposing themselves to a constant stream of highlight reels. This creates the unrealistic perception that someone is living a better life, has a better body, is more gifted, and continuously judges themselves based on what someone posts on social media. Krause et al. (2019) proposed three areas as the criteria that influence self-esteem: social comparison, social feedback, and self-reflection. These three criteria derive from self-evaluation and combine to create self-esteem.
Valkenburg et al., (2006) conducted a study with 881 adolescents aged 10 to 19 years old who found that their self-esteem correlated with the feedback they received from others on their profiles. If there was positive feedback, this created an increase in self-esteem, and vice versa if they received negative feedback. This suggests that adolescents will have higher self-esteem if they receive the feedback they desire.
It should be noted that the above study is 15 years old, and social media was still in a fledgling state of development. More recently, Jan et al. (2017) found that one hour on Facebook each day results in a 5.574 decrease in self-esteem score. Another study conducted by Saint-Georges and Vaillancourt (2020), “found evidence for the vulnerability model (self-esteem predicting depression) and the symptoms-driven model (depression predicting peer victimization).” Further, they also found that “poor self-esteem initiated a developmental cascade that led to poor mood and poor peer relations.”
Fardouly and Vartanian (2016) conducted a review of existing research, and found in 2016 that “Correlational studies consistently show that social media usage (particularly Facebook) is associated with body image concerns among young women and men Facebook and companies being exposed to negative news is nothing new.” In 2014, Kramer et al. stated that the emotions of users were manipulated by pushing positive or negative content to their timeline. Results found that users who had been exposed to more emotional content, whether positive or negative, were more likely to respond in a like manner in their posts, demonstrating that emotions are contagious. This is a concerning result when taking into consideration the findings from Carlyle et al. (2018) that posts about suicide had higher levels of engagement.
Continuing this theme, Marengo et al. (2021), found that 67% of Facebook aged 18–25 years old had a positive correlation between an increased amount of likes on their social media and increased self-esteem. In the study, only a low number of participants received negative feedback on their posts, but when they did, it correlated with low self-esteem. Social media has created a shallow world in which the number of followers and likes received makes an adolescent possibly feel successful socially. However, the adolescents who are most suffering are the ones who do not have a large following and do not have a high number of likes. Although it is positive for an adolescent to have increased self-esteem based on their following, it is important to consider the consequences of using social media and not receiving a positive response and the resulting low self-esteem.
One of the core problems is that many social media users struggle to accept that social media and real-life are not in alignment and judge their own lives on a false reality. This is an important aspect to consider in light of the Krause et al. (2019) proposal that social comparison is a major influence on self-esteem. Many people fail to recognize that celebrities and friends they follow only present highlights or snapshots, often using carefully selected posts to gain more likes and followers, resulting in a self-esteem boost for the poster, and a self-esteem reducing effect for the viewer. This is especially evident on the female fitness pages on social media today. Davies et al. (2020) randomly assigned images to female social media users aged 18 to 25 of fit women on Instagram and found a positive correlation of lower self-image when they presented photos of fit women. Social media can increase and decrease self-esteem, but when a user signs on to their account they are confronted with a timeline of people presenting the idea they have a better life than the user it creates a false and vastly exaggerated world for an adolescent to compare themselves to.
1.2 Social Media and Mental Health
There are many ways in which social media can bring distress, and one of the most prevalent is in the form of social comparison. Krayer et al. (2007) analyzed 20 interviews with 12- to 14-year-old boys and girls, concluding that “comparison processes are used for the purpose of identity development.” It is important to note that when this study was conducted, social media was in its infancy, with Facebook and MySpace having launched only three and four years previous, respectively. An additional concern with social comparison was discussed by Jan et al. (2017), who found that 88% of people engage in making social comparisons on Facebook, and of the 88% engaged in comparison, 98% of the comparisons are upward social comparisons. Perhaps more concerning is that this study was conducted on adults, not adolescents in the critical stage of building an identity. Krause et al. (2019) conducted their literature review from 821 studies and found that social comparison on social networks “mostly results in decreases of users’ self-esteem,” with eight out of 13 studies reviewed for comparison finding a negative effect, with five of those eight showing upward comparison.
Karim et al. (2020) conducted a review of 16 papers, comprising eight cross-sectional studies, three longitudinal studies, two qualitative studies, and systematic reviews. Their findings were classified into two outcomes of mental health: anxiety and depression. While social networking has become a necessity for social connection, studies have recently been directed at the negative influence of time spent on social media, and the negative outcomes of its use overall. Karim et al., (2020) stated that social media influences how individuals view, maintain, and interact within their social network. This is supported by Martin et al. (2018) who state that the prolonged use of social media platforms such as Facebook may be related to negative signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.
The above findings are supported by Barry et al. (2017) who found that the higher the number of social media accounts and adolescent users, there is a moderate correlation with “parent-reported DSM-5 symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity/impulsivity, ODD, anxiety, and depressive symptoms, as well as adolescent-reported fear of missing out (FoMO) and loneliness.” Weinstein (2017) conducted studies on adolescents using a simulation of Instagram and found that participants who reported negative social comparison responses also reported an immediate reduction in emotional well-being. However, Weinstein explored another important factor, that of authenticity, and found that adolescents who had lower negative comparison recognized that what they were viewing was a highlight reel, and not necessarily authentic. However, adolescents in the higher negative comparison group stated that it might be forgotten or overlooked that people share a highlight reel, and is not a full reflection of real-life. With social comparison causing more damage to the mental health of the user than the good it provides it becomes necessary to explore what people are comparing themselves to. As a testament to how fast the social media landscape shifts, it should be noted that the research of Weinstein was conducted before the rise of Snapchat ad TikTok, used by 25% and 21% of the US population respectively (Auxier, & Anderson, 2021).
Above other social networking sites, Instagram appears to be particularly troublesome. Carlyle et al. (2018) state that “posts portraying suicidal intentions had significantly higher likes frequency than posts that did not exhibit an intention to attempt suicide.” As concerning as this is, Carlyle et al. conclude that “given the absence of suicide awareness posts from public and mental health entities, this indicates that Instagram is a likely conduit for suicidal ideation and the normalization of suicidal ideation and self-harm intent.” Compared with Tumblr and Twitter, Miguel et al. (2017) found that Instagram has the “highest proportions of graphic posts and posts with negative self-evaluations, as well as the lowest proportion of posts offering recovery‐oriented resources.” The pattern of self-harm was also found in a review of literature by Picardo et al. (2020) who found that although there have been concerns about self-harm and suicide on Instagram, they were only able to find 10 studies from 2010 to 2019 on the subject, and a range of between 9–66% of the posts studied contained content relating to either suicide or self-harm. Further cause for concern is that only one of the reports studied the relationship between viewing self-harm and actual self-harm, finding preliminary evidence of a correlation between content viewed and behavior.
Body dissatisfaction is another area where social media has influenced adolescent development negatively. According to Khanna and Sharma (2017), social media, specifically the posting of “selfies”, has increased plastic surgery rates among individuals with body dysmorphia, with an increase of 10% in rhinoplasty, 7% increase in hair transplants, and a 6% increase in eyelid surgeries in 2013. Research by de Vries et al., (2019) found that “on average, social media use was positively associated with body dissatisfaction, but this relationship was weaker among adolescents who reported a more positive mother-adolescent relationship.” This is supported by documents leaked to the Wall Street Journal in September 2021 stating that up to 13% of UK teen girls and 6% of US teen girls have had thoughts of suicide they can trace directly to Instagram. The report is quoted as stating “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls” (Wells et al., 2021). In response, Instagram posted a statement accepting those findings, suggesting they may not be in context, but they are working to improve user experience (Instagram, n.d.).
Cyberbullying is a growing problem, with Patchin and Hinduja (2019) finding the number of individuals experiencing it increasomg from 18–37% from 2007 to 2019. According to Diliberti et al. (2019) bullying is reported in 28% of middle schools and 16% of high schools. However, the numbers for cyberbullying are slightly higher at 33% and 30% respectively. The risks of bullying are substantial to not only the victim but also the perpetrator. The victim has an increased risk of depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and lower academic achievement which may be the result of skipping or dropping out of school (Farrington & Baldry, 2010). However, there are also risks of increased future exposure to violence, substance abuse, and lower academic performance for the perpetrator (Farrington & Baldry, 2010). It should also be noted that there is a duality between being a victim and a perpetrator of cyberbullying. Lozano-Blasco et al. (2020) found a correlation between being a victim and being a perpetrator, with Quintana-Orts and Rey (2018) giving further clarification that one of the primary factors in becoming a cyberbully was being a former cybervictim.
The connection between each of these areas can be found in research by Skilbred-Fjeld et al. (2020). Skilbred-Fjeld et al. categorized participants into three groups: cybervictims, cyberbullies, and cyberbully-victims. They found no significant difference between these three groups concerning anxiety, depression, self-harm, or antisocial behavior. The one area there was a significant difference was suicide attempts, where cyberbullies were significantly lower than cybervictims and cyberbully-victims. Cyberbullying, whether as a perpetrator or victim, is an important aspect to consider when exploring the online lives of adolescents and their mental health.