The 7 reasons why teen social media depression is real. Plus 5 helpful tips to restore balance.

Social media often leaves children feeling more alone and isolated and left out than it does "social."

Alone. That’s the word that comes to mind when I think of teens in their virtual social worlds.  When you look at the common stressors of teen social media, you wonder how any of them survive it. The nature of the online world, combined with the unique challenges of being a teenager, is a toxic mix and a parent–not the teen–must determine if social media immersion is worth the risk.  

Some teen depression is easy for parents to understand, because it’s related to making a move, losing pet or adjusting to a new school. Depression related to social media is harder for parents to grasp, yet it’s especially cruel to a developing mind. According to a recent Harvard survey of over 2,000 teens’ social media comments, published in New Media & Society, Weinstein and Selman, 2014, the stress falls into two categories. The first type is categorized as hostility or bullying: being impersonated, shamed, humiliated and personally attacked. The second is simply the nature of managing relationships online: feeling stalked, smothered, or hacked; or feeling pressure to comply with requests for intimate photos or access to accounts. With this long list of stressors, who wouldn’t be depressed?  

Here is a quick look at seven reasons your teen may be experiencing social media depression:

   •     Anxiety, stress, and jealousy. While the social media world can provide a lot of excitement, it is also full of negative emotions. Even adults experience stress as we are reminded of our friends’ perfect kids, perfect vacations and what seem to be perfect lives. Imagine how depressing it can be for teens as they are constantly evaluated and expected to measure up to friends’ virtual lives. The weight of their social media “part-time job” can produce anxiety, particular when they have little down time to recover.

   •     Lack of sleep. As a recent chaperone on a teen sports trip, I witnessed first-hand the sleepless night caused by a constant buzzing phone belonging to a teen who was literally answering texts and commenting on posts all through the night. Lack of sleep leads to depression because our brains desperately need that time to reorganize, refresh and detox. Yes, brain toxins are actually “washed away” only during sleep.  Most social media addiction experts agree that bedrooms should be a no-screen zone so teens can get their needed nine hours of sleep. It’s hard to get restful sleep with a buzzing phone under your pillow!

   •     Non-productive sedentary time. Moving, creating, developing, growing and just simply being productive are critical for your teen’s emotional health. Adolescence is a time of ups and downs; medical science tells us that exercise and productivity are essential. Every hour your teens spend on social media is an hour that they will potentially have nothing real to show for their time. That is very depressing.

   •     Feeling left out and social isolation.  Recently I asked a mom of two high school girls if she thought teens who were not on social media felt left out. Her rapid reply was, “My girls are on social media and they feel left out every day.” She explained that every day it seems that there is a photo her daughter was left out of, a party she wasn’t invited to, or a group she was not asked to join. These “social failure” reminders delivered daily to a teen phone quickly can add up, triggering a crying spell or a trip to the counselor’s office.

   •     Nothing is private on social media. Because of their underdeveloped frontal cortex, teens are prone to make hasty, poor, impulsive judgments that lead to too much personal information being shared. Depression can be triggered when they make a public blunder and they realize that it can’t be taken back.

   •     Decreased self-confidence and body image issues.  In your home, you may work to provide the non-critical love, support and encouragement around your child’s style, ideas, creations and large and small accomplishments. But social media is not as accepting as you are. The constant comparison in the virtual world can be depressing and life-changing. During a time when development can be awkward, social media arrives on the scene to fuel the unhealthy obsession with self.

   •     Graphic images and videos. Social media is full of graphic images, and we are drawn to them as we are to a train wreck: the more grotesque the image, the more “likes” it receives. Visual content can be deeply disturbing because images stay with us forever, because our brain files them away into both short and long-term memory. Because teenage brains are especially impressionable, these odd, novel, gross, and sometimes sexually explicit images are too much for a young brain to process. While on the surface they seem funny, they can transport your teen to a very dark place. For example, images of other teens cutting can cause your teen to experiment with that behavior, leading to depression that is manufactured simply from peer exposure on social media. Images of dark content can transport your teens to dark places as their imaginations are highly active and can run wild during adolescence.

Many experts suggest that you need to talk with your teens frequently about the dangers of social media. Discuss social media pitfalls including bullying, sexting, and predators. Explain that the images they see may not be real because of photo airbrush techniques and photo editing. Explain that they need to limit their use, filling their days with productive activities instead. Discuss privacy, time limits, and their need for sleep. While I agree with all of these suggestions, I also know that they assume that your teens are little adults. They are not. Most teens will not be able to fully comprehend your great advice and may dismiss most of it.

Sometime the best solutions are the simplest:

   •     Do not allow social media when they are young tweens and teens. It is not a safe playground.

   •     Follow their social media accounts when you do allow use and don’t buy the lie that they need social media privacy; they do not. Installing their social media apps directly on your phone is also a good tip while teens are under your roof.

   •     Keep a sharp eye on the clock. Keep a digital diary of their use or better yet contact your phone company to track their hours and adjust accordingly. Take social media breaks; a week off to reset will do wonders. Studies show that most of them appreciate and enjoy the break from their “job” of keeping their social media life up and running.

   •     Plan real face-to-face get together times for your children with their friends. Remember that they don’t need 254 friends; two to four good friends are enough for deep social development.  Think back to your childhood and count your good, close friends.  I bet it was less than 254.

   •     Spend more real non-tech time with your children. They are kids for just a short window of time. Teens especially need time with you more than you think, and more than they will let you think!

Social media depression is real but it doesn’t have to real for your tween or teen. Set your teens up for success by ensuring they get the full experience of a rich childhood before they spend too much time in the social media world. They have the rest of their lives to experience the virtual world. When they are a bit older, they will be able to balance that “alone” world much better! Visit our site for more tips on managing media in your home: