Are Adolescents Most Vulnerable To The Dark Side Effects Of Social Media?

Research suggests how living through images may be warping adolescents’ sense of reality.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 14, 2022

For most of us, social media is an integral part of our digital lives. For teenagers, the stakes are even higher.

The relationship that adolescents have with social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat is causing an unprecedented mental health crisis. NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt highlighted some alarming statistics about teenage mental health and social media use in recent testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. He noted:

  • Teenage mental health has deteriorated rapidly since 2010, coinciding with the advent of social media
  • The crisis is specific to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression
  • The crisis has affected teens around the world, not just in the United States
  • Teens who use their phones 4-5 hours a day are significantly more likely to be depressed than teens who use their phones an hour or less per day

There are several underlying social, psychological, and neurological explanations for why adolescents are more susceptible to the harmful effects of social media. Three recent studies can help us understand what social media does to a teenage mind.

#1. Social media causes a reduction in body confidence

A recent study published in Psychology Research and Behavior Management tracked the impact of selfies on teenagers' body confidence and well-being.

The research found that selfie-taking, posting, and viewing have an overall negative effect on the mood and body confidence of adolescents. This is because the selfie is primarily used as a way to gain peer recognition and validation. The more importance people place on it, the higher their chances of feeling inadequate.

The scientists also note that viewing selfies can be as bad as posting them. This is because what the teenager is looking at is almost always a staged and strategically edited image of a face – yet teenagers register it as if it were the real thing.

The study went so far as to track the filter application practices of Singaporean adolescents as a means to manage insecurity and self-esteem. Teenagers, especially girls, frequently cropped, filtered, and made direct alterations to their faces to improve their appearance.

#2. Social media causes an increase in self-objectification

Objectification theory states that women in Western cultures learn at an early age that others evaluate their bodies and they gradually internalize this observer perspective. Learning to evaluate oneself from a third-person, appearance-focused point of view is a process known as self-objectification.

This process encourages people, especially women, to idealize certain kinds of body types and try to achieve them.

A recent study published in the Journal of Media Psychology found that girls exercised body surveillance on social media by idealizing the 'thin body ideal.' The study also pointed out that girls valued appearance over competence.

An important point highlighted by the researchers was that social media may contribute to the body image issue more than traditional media because viewing and sharing of sexualized images becomes a socially shared experience on such platforms. For instance, users often discuss the bodies of the individuals they see on Instagram, which might intensify the links between sexualized images and self-objectification.

#3. Social media instills an atmosphere of surveillance

Users of social media are involved in a reciprocal process known as "social surveillance" whereby they not only carefully manage their own posts but also check the content that others post on their profiles and updates.

This surveillance instinct is often stronger among adolescents because of their need for feedback from their peers as well as their tendency to engage in social comparison.

According to a recent study published in The Journal of Psychology, the dynamics of social surveillance can negatively impact teenage users of social media because it encourages them to chase after what is deemed normal, desirable, and popular in the online community instead of representing their true selves.

How can teenagers use social media responsibly?

More research is needed to answer this question, but Ross Szabo, the former Director of Outreach of the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign, offers a few suggestions:

  1. Take frequent breaks from social media. Check in with people in real life for their reactions. Take time to connect with friends, family, and people at school to see how people interact with you instead of only relying on social media.
  2. Be your most authentic self on social media. When you are on social media, post about all kinds of things that matter to you and not just the best things or sides of you that may be superficial. The more authentic you are on social media, the more authentic your experiences can be on and offline.