The Harmful Effects of Social Media on Teens

African teen girl in headphones scrolling social media

Social media has become essential to modern life, especially for teenagers. It provides a platform for self-expression, communication, and connectivity. However, increasing evidence suggests that these platforms may adversely affect adolescent well-being.

Why is Social Media Harmful to Teens?

According to the Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, in his 19-page advisory, social media’s effect on adolescent mental health is not fully comprehended. There are, however, “ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.” He further added, “Adolescents are not just smaller adults. They’re in a different phase of development and a critical phase of brain development.”

Social media’s potential harms derive from several factors. Platforms often abound with “extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content,” such as those that normalize self-harm, eating disorders, and other destructive behaviors. Cyberbullying is also prevalent. Moreover, social media can significantly impact early adolescence when identities and self-esteem are forming, making the adolescent brain particularly vulnerable to social pressures, peer opinions, and comparisons. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), data shows that from 2000 to 2020, the national suicide rate increased by 30%. Although this cannot be entirely attributed to the rise of social media, studies have shown a correlation between increased social media use, cyberbullying, and suicidal ideation in adolescents.

Social Media’s Effects on Teens

Social media can positively and negatively impact young people’s well-being. While it is a powerful platform for self-expression, building communities, and maintaining connections, heavy use can displace activities vital to developing brains, like sleep and exercise.

A connection between social media use and increased rates of distress among adolescents has emerged in recent years. Pew Research found that most teens ages 15 to 17 (73%) use Instagram. Like many other platforms, Instagram allows users to share photos and videos, like and comment on others’ posts, and send private messages. While these features can be fun and engaging, they also open the door for potential harm, including exposure to harmful content, cyberbullying, and the detrimental effects of constant comparison and perceived societal expectations.

Asian girl using tablet for social media connections

Supporting Teens in the Era of Social Media

Dr. Murthy’s report offers several recommendations for mitigating the harmful effects of social media on teens. These include keeping mealtimes and in-person gatherings free of devices to promote social bonding and conversation and creating a “family media plan” to set expectations and boundaries for social media use.

Governments, too, are called upon to create age-appropriate health and safety standards for technology platforms. Dr. Murthy also urges tech companies to enforce minimum age limits and establish default settings for children with high safety and privacy standards.

Treating Mental Health Disorders in Teens

While these preventative measures are essential, addressing the impact of social media on adolescents already suffering from mental health disorders is equally vital. Comprehensive treatment for such teens must consider their digital habits, including social media use. Therapies should focus not only on the management of symptoms but also on the development of coping strategies for navigating online spaces.

Massachusetts Center for Adolescent Wellness – Teen Mental Health Treatment

At Massachusetts Center for Adolescent Wellness, our approach to teen mental health treatment incorporates understanding and addressing the role of social media in our patients’ lives. Our team of experts is committed to fostering healthy digital habits while providing comprehensive treatment for mental health disorders. 

Our approach is centered on treating your teen as a whole, promoting holistic wellness for each patient in our care. The harmful effects of social media on teens present a formidable challenge, but we believe these risks can be mitigated through a deep understanding, reasonable regulation, and robust support systems. We stand committed to aiding and supporting your teenager throughout their journey.

Are you concerned that you or a loved one may have an unhealthy relationship with social media? Take our Teen Electronics Addiction Quiz to learn more.

Staff member Tiffany Leyne

Director of Family and Community Relations

Table of Contents

Clinically Reviewed by:

Dr. Melanie Carbonneau PhD, LMHC, MT-BC

Dr. Melanie Carbonneau PhD, LMHC, MT-BC

Melanie Carbonneau is the Clinical Director at Massachusetts Center for Adolescent Wellness and is a licensed counselor and certified music therapist with a Ph.D. from Lesley University. She leads MCAW with a focus on holistic care, emphasizing the importance of family and community involvement in the healing process.