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.
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.
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
- a socially isolated, “gender nonconforming” teenage girl–perhaps one on the autism spectrum–who is “seeking interaction and support” on the Internet, with
- a heaping helping of YouTube FTM transition videos touting the magical powers of testosterone and top surgery to solve all ills, and add
- a dash of suicide contagion to teens already more prone to suicidal ideation and poor mental health, with a spoonful of
- “counseling” by strangers on the Internet, and the constant
- pressure to “identify” as somewhere along the gender spectrum?