Protecting Your Teen’s Mental Health in the Age of Social Media

Ask any parent about their concerns for their teenage children, and they will probably mention their teen’s time spent scrolling through social media. 

The average American teenager spends more than three hours per day on social media, with almost all (around 95%) using YouTube, Instagram or TikTok. The U.S. Surgeon General warns that teens who spend that amount of time on social media have double the risk of developing mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. 

According to David Laufgraben, M.D., assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine, there are strong pros and cons to letting your teenager use social media. The benefits, such as building confidence, exploring their identity and engaging with their community, should always be considered along with the risks. 

“Along with the opportunities and the good things that technology has given us … is the danger of going overboard and losing that healthy balance,” Dr. Laufgraben said. 

Understanding the Risks of Too Much Social Media 

Children’s brains go through a sensitive developmental period between ages 10 and 19. Their sense of identity and self-worth is developing, and they are especially vulnerable to peer pressure. 

Some research has linked heavy social media use with interrupted sleep, poor body image, low self-esteem and depressive symptoms—especially among girls. Cyberbullying and online harassment that occurs through social media can take a toll on emotional stability and physical health, as well, since young people can be exposed to harmful content online. 

The harmful content extends beyond what they see and read. Thanks to the performative aspects of social media apps like TikTok, teens may feel the urge to participate in dangerous behavior that can leave a teen injured, disabled or worse. 

Signs Teens Are Using Social Media Too Much 

Dr. Laufgraben cautions parents that social networks are addictive by design. He advises parents to always look out for red flags, such as a child losing interest in real-world experiences they used to enjoy.  

“Are [your teenagers] missing sleep?” Dr. Laufgraben asked. “Are they tired the next day? Is their school performance suffering? Do you have a kid who used to be on the honor roll and now they're barely getting by or failing some classes?” 

If you’re seeing these or similar signs in your teens, consider implementing some necessary changes in how and when they used social media. 

Avoiding social media is easier said than done, but Dr. Laufgraben recommends setting rules for the whole family: 

  • Mute phones during mealtimes and family outings. 
  • Prioritize sleep. 
  • Help your teen develop a routine that gets them the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night. 
  • Make sure teens get enough exercise. 
  • Talk to them open and honestly about their social media use. Listen carefully and don’t leap to judgment, ensuring they feel comfortable sharing concerns. 

Most importantly, ensure you model healthy social media use. Follow the rules you set for your teen—they won’t take you as seriously if you’re scrolling through apps as much as they are.  

Keep your voice clear and healthy and make an appointment with a provider at Weill Cornell Medicine. Find a provider today.