Is social media actually bad for your kid's mental health? How much social media is too much?

# Social media...sigh!

Of all the technologies kids have access to today, there may be none more anxiety producing for parents than social media. And what parent hasn’t argued with their kids about spending too much time on social media, the possible harm caused by social media, not getting enough physical activity, or posting things online that, frankly, kids shouldn’t be posting? I’m getting a bit anxious just writing about kids and social media!

Research shows tweens and teens spend 7 - 9 hours per day (depending on the study) consuming media (including social media) and entertainment on their computer/phone screens, excluding time spent doing schoolwork. Research also indicates that many of the negative experiences kids have day-to-day happen on social media. For example, one in three children are cyberbullied and 70% of children say they have cyberbullied someone online (opens new window). Likewise, 50% of people ages 14-24 have experienced technologically abusive behavior (opens new window).

Given this, is it any wonder parents have concerns about social media? And it's not only adults that think social media has some real negative aspects. At least one study found that “One-quarter of adolescents think social media has a mostly negative influence on people their age, pointing to reasons like rumor spreading, lack of in-person contact, unrealistic views of others’ lives, peer pressure, and mental health issues”. Unfortunately, knowing the negatives doesn’t seem to prevent kids from using it (or becoming addicted to it).

That said, social media is not all bad. We wrote previously about some of the positive aspects of social media for tweens and teens (opens new window). In this article we focus on some of the mental health challenges associated with social media and also try to answer the question, how much social media is too much for our kids? And make sure to check out the excellent videos at the bottom of the post.

“Social media has given us this idea that we should all have a posse of friends when in reality, if we have one or two really good friends, we are lucky.” -- Brene Brown


# Social media in the media

Now that social media is so central to everyday life, it’s also become a more regular topic of examination, discussion, and scrutiny, including from mainstream media. One example of this is the recent documentary, The Social Dilemma (opens new window). If you haven’t seen it, we highly recommend that you do. We suggest watching it without your kids, and if you feel it’s appropriate, watching it a second time with your kids. Yes, it’s highly dramatized at points, but it’s still a powerful and important movie.

Wikipedia (opens new window) explains the premise of the movie this way:

The documentary examines the effect that a handful of companies, including but not limited to Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have over the public; it is emphasized that a relatively small number of engineers make decisions that impact billions of people. The documentary examines the current state of social media platforms focusing more specifically on problems in the industry. Jeff Orlowski, director of other documentaries such as Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice, designed the film to include conversations that tackle concepts in technology such as data mining, technology addiction, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and surveillance capitalism.[16] The film follows a cast of interviewees, most of whom have left their respective companies due to varying ethical concerns that the industry as a whole has lost its way.


# And the studies show...

Researchers and academics are also examining the impact of social media. Two recent studies in particular looked at how social media impacts the mental health of young people. On the surface, it appears the two studies contradict each other (how frustrating would that be?!), but more on that later.

The first study, Associations Between Time Spent Using Social Media and Internalizing and Externalizing Problems Among US Youth, published in JAMA Psychiatry (opens new window) in September, 2019 examined whether spending different amounts of time on social media caused more harm. For example, is there more harm to spending 3 hours per day on social media than spending 30 minutes per day?

I won’t leave you in suspense - The lead researcher states, "The more time you spent on social media, adolescents were more likely to have issues like anxiety and depression on follow-up...It was a pretty clear-cut association."

More specifically, the results show that kids that spend:

  • 30 minutes - 3 hours per day had a 2X increased risk of internalizing symptoms (i.e., having mental health issues);
  • 3 - 6 hours per day had a 2.5X increased risk; and
  • More than 6 hours per day meant a 3X increased risk.

To reiterate what the lead research stated - the results of this study clearly indicate that more time on social media is associated with more anxiety, depression, and loneliness.


# What about that other study?

The second study we’ll mention, Young Adolescents’ Digital Technology Use and Mental Health Symptoms: Little Evidence of Longitudinal or Daily Linkages, published in Clinical Psychological Science (opens new window) in August 2019, drew different conclusions.

In this study, the researchers indicate that, “Contrary to the common belief that smartphones and social media are damaging adolescents’ mental health, we don’t see much support for the idea that time spent on phones and online is associated with increased risk for mental health problems.”

Is this a case of science contradicting itself or is something else going on? While the results of this second study may feel more comforting for us adults, the reality is the two studies examined somewhat different things. Although the previous study looked specifically at time spent on social media, this study looked at time spent using technology, not necessarily social media.

Thus, while the amount of time using technology may not be associated with risk of mental health issues, time spent on social media appears to be.

As a parent, this makes me pay special attention to the time my teen spends on social media, and less so on technology as a whole. In these COVID days (online learning, etc.) this distinction may be even more important than ever.

The research is compelling that social media is having a strong negative impact on the mental health of our tweens and teens. As a result, it’s important to limit the time our kids spend on social media.

If you’re asking, how the heck do I do that, we have a suggestion, at least a starting point. Head over to the The American Academy of Pediatrics (opens new window) and make a media plan using their family media planning tool. This helps you make a plan to limit social media, not necessarily limiting all technology or screen time.


# The impact of social media on teens, as told by a teen

In this video, Katanu Mbevi talks openly about the impact social media has on teen mental health. She gives clear and compelling insights that should make anyone of any age take a step back and think carefully about whether it’s worth being on social media. This is a good video to watch with your teens.

Click here (opens new window) if the video above does not load properly


# The lasting effects of social media addiction

This video doesn’t feature a teen, but rather a former TV star who came to realize the damage social media can do to your self esteem. She reflects back to the impact it caused during her teen years and how that damage influenced her decisions for years. It’s both a powerful and lovely story.

Click here (opens new window) if the video above does not load properly

# Please Tell Your Friends

If you have friends, family members, or co-workers that may benefit from Vertroos Health, please tell them about us. We want to help as many kids and families as possible. You can forward this email to them or direct them to Thanks!

# Do You or Your Child Need Support?

If you or your child are in a crisis situation please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, as well as prevention and crisis resources for you and your loved ones.

If you're not in crisis but would like to connect with an online counselor (through our partnership with Betterhelp), please use one of these links: