Social networking and the implications for dysphoric teens

It’s a cliché now: Teens barely talk to each other in person anymore, nor do they call each other on the phone. Even when together in groups, they seem to be constantly looking down at their smartphones, absorbed in their separate little cyberworlds.

teens staring at phones

And many of us adults do much the same thing. We bemoan it at times, longing for the pre-Internet days, but it’s what we do. It’s just the way life is in the early 21st century.

But the findings from this new survey of 753 Canadian teens (grades 7 – 12) make it altogether clear: too much Tumblr and Twitter (and other social networking sites–SNSs) are very, very bad for the mental health of youth.

This study found that students with poor mental health are
greater users of SNSs. Results clearly show that youth who report use of SNSs for more than 2 hours per day have also reported poor self-rated mental health, psychological distress, suicidal ideation, or unmet need for mental health support.

And the dose very much makes the poison.

social media teen mental health

The numbers are stunning. Compared to their peers who were online 2 hours or less per day, teens who imbibed over 2 hours of social networking were:

  • over twice as likely to self-report “poor” mental health (29.3% vs. 13.8%)
  • over twice as likely to answer “yes” when asked “In the last 12 months, was there a time when you wanted to talk to someone about a mental health or emotional
    problem you had, but you did not know where to turn?’’ (45.6% vs. 21.3%)
  • over twice as likely to score high on a standardized measure of psychological distress, i.e. depression and anxiety (42.4% vs. 18.6%)
  • nearly three times more likely to answer “yes” when asked ‘‘During the last 12 months, did you ever seriously consider attempting suicide?’’ (24.9% vs. 9.1%)

And, as you can see in the table above, the differences are even more extreme when compared to young people who report “infrequent or no use” of social networking sites.

How ironic is it that the more teenagers use “social” networking, the worse their psychological (and therefore social) well being?

As SNSs are increasingly becoming an integral part of life
today, especially for children and adolescents, parents need to be more aware of the pitfalls of SNSs and actively engage
with young people in making it a safer and enjoyable experience for them. Parents should consider frequent use of SNSs as a possible indicator of, or risk for, mental health problems among children. Youth with mental health problems may be  frequently using SNSs to seek interaction or support.

For a depressed, socially isolated kid, it’s a lot easier to stare down at your phone and interact with your cyber”friends” than to deal with the stresses of social interaction at school.

Students who spend more time on SNSs also likely have less time to invest in other health-promoting activities … The cross-sectional nature of the data precludes evaluation of temporality and causality of the observed relationship between use of SNSs and mental health problems. Indeed, excessive use of SNSs could contribute to poor mental health and may be bidirectional. Use of SNSs can lead to poor mental health and poor mental health may be a reason why youth use SNSs.

In other words: heavy use of social networking and poor mental health appear to mutually reinforce each other. The worse the kid feels, the more they retreat into the Internet. It’s not a stretch to say that would likely mean they have fewer meaningful relationships IRL (“in real life”)–including, perhaps, those crucial early romantic or even sexual relationships that might ground them in their real-life bodies. Instead, they have a virtual existence as whatever online identity they have constructed on Tumblr or Reddit.

Is it a coincidence that the explosion of social media in the last several years is correlated with the steadily increasing number of girls identifying as trans, “genderqueer,” “demiboy,” or some other identity permutation? If desperate-to-transition-or-I’ll-kill-myself were not a social trend, the pre-21st century medical literature would be full of reports of such suicidal patients. Young women would have been saying to doctors and psychologists that if they could not live as the the opposite sex, they might as well be dead. But we find no such record in the clinical literature.

What do you get when you combine

You connect the dots.

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15 thoughts on “Social networking and the implications for dysphoric teens

  1. we parents must stop buying into this madness, and by that i mean even the means of networking. who buys these children their smart phones, who buys all the stuff? we must take back our buying power. its a small start, i know.

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  2. Very important point of analysis here. On the topic of social networking use, I recommend this article: http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/kevin-tucker-the-suffocating-void which touches many of the points you mention. On the other hand, everyone who is not biased with the trans activist bullshit knows how to connect the dots. But no one in power wants that, now do they? Sadly, the only ones who can help are us, and we’re not a majority.

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  3. Right, right, right. Exactly. Anyone who says social media use isn’t a strong driver of kids’ interest in transitioning is just not paying attention to real life. Especially in terms of natal girls. This is not something that’s ‘always been.’ This is a phenom largely driven by the massive echo chamber of tumblr, reddit, and youtube.

    But the people who say “just unplug them” — I so appreciate the sentiment but with some fair number of kids this could be counterproductive, in terms of increasing their desperation factor and their level of identification with their online “community” vs IRL family and friends. (Leelah Alcorn appears to be exhibit A here, but I know trying to totally turn off my kid would have not only caused World War III at home but would also have just cemented her desire to become someone other than the person she was at the time, whom she didn’t actually seem to like very much.)

    What seems to help, or at least helped my kid, was a deeper look into social anxiety issues with a counselor who wasn’t a ‘gender counselor,’ and (thank God) some contacts with some new friends via school classes in a new year who encouraged my kid to try some different activities. She ultimately became identified with this group and much less interested in spending hours and hours online staring at ‘my journey with T’ videos. I will not say she never looks, because I can’t supervise her 24/7, but at the moment her identity as an honors student and online gamer seems to have eclipsed her prior interest in transitioning. (It might loop back around. I hope not. She still is quite gender nonconforming and she’s still binding. But her general mental state is much improved.)

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    • Great stuff, puzzled. I found that modifying access to CERTAIN sites was helpful (without completely “unplugging”). And also shutting down the wireless router at a certain time of night at home. But your main point aligns with the research study I link. The issue seems to be too much time online versus real life. Less Internet time doesn’t address the problems that result from too much time IRL with kids who are also gung-ho Trans identified, but you can’t force a teenager and they have to (and will) find their own way. Still, I think a lot of contemporary parents give up and don’t realize how much adolescents still need them to provide structure and some limits. Of course, no teen would admit to that. It’s one of those things most of us only see with 20-20 hindsight. The Internet has introduced a parenting challenge that former generations didn’t have to deal with. I think we’re all trying to figure out just what the balance is on that. Sometimes people say “well it doesn’t matter what you do at home because they’ll just get access to those sites when they’re at a friends house” or whatever. But the sheer number of hours spent in unhealthy online pursuits matters, which is exactly what the results of that study show. If you can cut down on that binge time it does seem to help.

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      • This is great stuff, and I am reminded of how different children are who spend lots of time outdoors being physically active. One young man told me his son’s teacher was amazed at how calm and serene his son is compared to the other children in his class (the majority of children in my rural area are indoors looking at some sort of screen). The children at the organic farm nearby converse easily with adults and are eager to share their doings. I’m not fond of the Amish, but their children are relaxed and articulate.

        You are one hundred percent correct that this trans stuff is driven by SNS. You’ve got some very good advice here, and I would hope that more parents can help their children pursue actual activities (no screens!) that they can feel passionate about.

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  4. They are products of their environment; Children born into an overly gendered capitalist society, in the age of the Internet.

    To them, isolated individuals in front of their screens, an “identity” is a carefully maintained brand or profile of “likes” and preferences, but to us, “identity” is simply the recognition of a known and understood quantity. It’s the difference between knowing what a “Kumquat” is and wanting to eat a “Kumquat”. The concepts are in fact so different that a brain uses two separate neural pathways to even think this stuff through (I remember this from looking at someone else’s studies into supressing appetite with alien looking foods).

    We’re saying “gender” to represent wholly different concepts.

    We’re saying “identity” to represent wholly different concepts.

    We fight.

    If we temporarily ignore all the parts where their words quite often technically mean nothing, as they’re simply an exercise in authoritarian and abusive “thought reform”, an opportunity to punish an individual for failure to agree to any given unprovable to flat out impossible thing – then “gender identity” means nowt but “your conscious and rationalising mind” or “soul” for the more spiritually inclined.

    In which case, as a dyspraxic with an endocrine system that’s taken her through puberty to perimenopause – “Why the hell would anyone think that your conscious brain is ever, ever, in synch with the rest of you fleshy great body?!” and “Can we please stop telling people that wholly ordinary bodily functions are somehow broken in order to sell us crap”.

    Also, dyspraxia means that that conscious, rationalising part of the brain struggles with sending and receiving sensory data from the rest of the body. There is just so much subconscious mental gloss that chews things through before your consciousness is even aware of it, and many many ways for it to break down. As far as I can tell, an apparent “body map” augments information about a body and it’s actions so as to be read and understood by conscious mind. However, my “body map” is full of holes – so the information takes a while to get through, making my sense of disconnect from body even worse the average human being’s.

    PS; Dyspraxia often goes hand in hand with Autism.

    One more thing; if we’re looking for some handy ammunition; we’re in the midst of an Alzheimers epidemic. We have people being stripped of memory, connections, understanding and subsequently “identity”. There’s a sad world of difference between someone being unable to physically remember and know who their loved ones still are, and someone demanding we all pretend we don’t remember their past happening the way that it did.

    Your children have Grandparents and there’s a whole lot of other people being effected by that shit, now stick that in your Emotional Blackmail Pipe and smoke it.

    And one more, more thing; Neuroscientist and writer Oliver Sacks is “queer”, maybe get your kids to read some of his stuff too. It’s easier to follow than Judith Butler.

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  5. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. I know people who have met good friends on the internet, and there are lesbian feminist like Bev Jo who I greatly respect. (I am very happy she put her book online.) Still, it’s good to interact with people in the real world, especially as a teenager. Since I’m in my mid-20s, my brain is developed enough to realize when I should lay off the internet/video game time and go get some fresh air. (Or at least do something around the house. It’s August and it’s way too hot outside.) Teens don’t have the same thing going on. I thought I knew it all at that age, and even though I was right about some things there were plenty of things I changed my mind about. For example, I’m not so into the goth thing anymore. I also used to have a view superficial, post-modernist understanding of feminism and have changed my beliefs on a lot of things.

    Anyway, I don’t think that much time online is healthy, even if the teen isn’t a trans trender. We had dial-up internet until I was about 17 (then we got DSL) and some of my friends only could use internet at school. Smartphones enable internet access even if you don’t have an internet service provider, as long as you have enough data. I did not get a smartphone until after I graduated with my bachelor’s degree. Even so, when I was a teen, some of my friends did run into predatory adults online and spent too much time on livejournal/myspace.

    I do agree that completely unplugging may not work, but it’s still a good idea to have reasonable limits on internet access. I recall my dad commenting that I spent a lot of time playing video games and my response was that I had straight A’s and cleaned more of the house than he did so it didn’t matter. So if your kid is doing well academically and is doing their chores too, expect that response.

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    • Another possible technique to get kids interested in non-online, non-identity soaked activities is to have an Unplugged Day every week. Maybe Saturday. Or less severely, a weekday. When there’s no Internet all day for anyone in the house. Then the kid has to come up with other activities to do that day every week. My suggestion? Read a book! But it could be anything. Go visit a friend in person. Go to the park/bike riding. Pursue some hobby that involves improvement at it over time. Like painting or crafts. It’s about breadth as a person, versus being about anti-Internet.

      Also turning off the router at midnight or earlier every day is a really good idea. When I read that I remembered how when I was a little kid in the 60s TV used to actually go off the air.

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  6. I didn’t talk a lot about that in my essays (I’m the author of the previous post, “Abandoning the Ship of Woman”), but I think internet use is definitely a key part of the suite of traits that leave kids vulnerable to these tendencies. I was obsessed with the internet during my (real-life) friendless early preteen/teen-years! It was powerfully addictive as an outlet where I could self-medicate for my loneliness while tightly controlling my presentation and others’ perceptions of me. And again, be totally separate from my body.

    Heavy internet use, roleplaying, furries, etc… It’s all part of the same drive to dissociate from the body and instead be something else that you don’t entirely understand (or just completely made up). All of your problems would be solved if only you could Be Other. I completely agree with those who say that anorexia is a part of the same family of predispositions. What IS this phenomenon? Is it mild ASD, or something that hasn’t been studied? I feel like it all has to be connected.

    I didn’t start coming back from the worst of my internet obsession until spending time with my first (internet) boyfriend in-person. I think the level of remove that long-distance provided was a good transition from living in my head (and then online) into a physical reality that I actually occupy. I still struggle with this a bit, but have managed to have lots of very healthy real-life friendships and a much better relationship with my body.

    I don’t know what the solution for it is… the internet seems to be like irresistible candy for kids like me with mental illness, but also make things WORSE as well as potentially providing training wheels to get kids connected with each other and out of their own heads. I really don’t think it would be as terribly unhealthy if it weren’t for predatory, self-serving adults, as in the trans community. I was relatively safe in my circles in the early 2000s because it was before social media, and the majority of the communities I stuck with were full of other young teenagers (especially young girls). We engaged each other primarily through art (a healthy and productive practice!) I credit this period as very important to my development as an artist. It definitely gave me so much that I wound up as a professional with a great career that I love.

    On one hand, I was allowed to deprive myself of really important experiences… but I also was perhaps able to shift from being a complete weirdo who never socialized into a person who could socialize others (provided a safe level of remove) until I was comfortable becoming a person who had a lot of healthy, thriving real-life relationships. Ultimately I guess it was a wash.. but like I’ve said, I was very lucky that all this trans hysteria wasn’t readily available/thrown in my face.

    After seeing my own childhood, I’m really nervous about having kids myself. I wouldn’t know how to protect them from the internet, which seems so hypocritical given my own history.

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  7. So adolescents with problems now turn to social networking. Wow, good news, because they turned to gangs or cults before.

    Parents who largely caused the problems want to control the lives of their adolescent kids fully, and thus try to enforce bans on social interactions they don’t approve. Now, that’s not news.

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    • You again. Kids are not turning to social networking, they are living virtual lives instead of living real lives in which they learn real skills and have contact with the real world. And the online world is very cultish.

      Parents have every right to set limits for their adolescent children — I know, I’ve lived with other people’s children, which is an even greater challenge. I got sets of problems handed to me (an 18-year-old, a 16-year-old, and a 13-year-old) and, guess what? Every one of those children except the last one (horribly abused and neglected) craved adult attention and limits. Limits make children feel safe, and without them they feel adrift in a frightening world.

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