Health & Wellness

The Complex Relationship Between Technology and Teen Mental Health

Are social media and online activity the cause of mental health problems, or are underlying issues simply being triggered?


New research into the role of social media and other screen time and its effect on mental health in teens dives into whether time spent online causes mental health issues, or exacerbates underlying problems.

Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital, says digital technology has the potential to be so dangerous because it is interactive by nature and has the ability to draw children in. He says there are four main categories of "problematic interactive media use." These are:

  • Social media (which affects mostly girls)
  • Gaming (which affects mostly boys)
  • Information bingeing
  • Pornography

Rich tells the New York Times that what all four areas have in common, is that many of the children affected had underlying issues to start with, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, social anxiety or depression . Thus, Instagram may not cause depression in a teen girl, but if she is suffering from undiagnosed depression or body dysmorphia, spending hours every day scrolling Instagram may intensify these issues. A teen boy who plays violent video games likely won't be driven to commit real-world acts of violence--but the games may inflame anti-social and/or anxiety disorders with which he is already struggling.

However, these issues can be much more complicated. Many teens can derive a great deal of value from social media. As mentioned last week, LGBTQ teens who are struggling with their own identities may find support in an online group or forum that they are not getting in their school or offline community.

"It's a balancing act for some of these teens, finding help and support online but not being able to filter out the negative things," Dr. Ana Radovic, an assistant professor at UPMC Children's Hospital, told the Times.

The main takeaway for parents is that they need to have open conversations with their children and lessen the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Dr. Rich says that his research shows when children get treatment for their underlying issues, "We often find these behaviors disappear or get much more manageable."

Having a frank dialogue is even more important as studies show teen suicide rates, especially for girls, are rising . However, Dr. Radovic says only a third of teens with depression get treatment. She also points to another indirect impact technology can have on teen (and adult) mental health--by causing a lack of healthy sleep. She says people have invited the smartphone and computers into their bedroom, often keeping it on the nightstand, scrolling feeds until the moment we go to bed, then checking again the moment we wake up. This has a clear detrimental effect on sleep, and Dr. Radovic says there is growing evidence suggesting poor sleep is a risk factor for suicide.

Both Radovic and Rich say that we need to reassess how parents and teens use technology in the home, and find the right way to limit negative exposure to interactive media.

"We need to parent them in that space," Dr. Rich says, to draw a distinction between the virtual world and reality.

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