McNerney: Smartphone Use and Teen Depression

By Neil McNerney

If you have read some of my columns this past year, you probably know that I don’t tend to jump on the latest parenting trend, or needlessly attempt to scare parents through alarming and possibly inaccurate studies about kids these days. With that in mind, I have been somewhat skeptical about the alarm bells that have been ringing for the past few years about how cell phones are going to be the downfall of the teenage generation.

My opinion, based some recently published research, is beginning to change. Most recent studies were based on correlation data, which means that two behaviors were both present, but it is hard to show if one caused the other. For instance, teen depression and smartphone use have both significantly increased in the past five years. Therefore, teen depression and smartphone use are correlated, but the data weren’t showing that smartphone use was causing the increased depression. Recent studies have begun to show that increased smartphone use is the primary cause of increased teen depression.

There are multiple reasons for my conclusion, since there are multiple factors that lead to increased depressive symptoms.

Decreased Sleep—Studies are indicating that in the past five years, teens who spend a good deal of time on smartphones are getting less sleep. We know that decreased sleep is a significant risk factor to depression.

Increased Isolation—Smartphone use, for many teens, leads to increased isolation and less face-to-face interaction. Although there are many factors that can lead to increased isolation, smartphone use has contributed to this trend.

The most important research has drawn a direct connection to depression and smartphone use. When study participants were randomly assigned to a control group vs. a group that did not have access to social media for a week, the group that did not have access had significantly increased satisfaction with life and reported more positive emotions. Although this field of study is just beginning, I think there is enough data to conclude that increased social media use is detrimental to teenage mental health.

There seem to be two major factors that stand out on why social media use is decreasing teen happiness. The first factor is the fear of missing out, also known as FOMO. Friends posting online about parties and gatherings that the teen wasn’t invited to creates a cascading set of emotions including isolation, anger, jealousy and insecurity.

The second factor is especially harmful to female teenagers: Unfavorable appearance comparisons. Teens are comparing themselves against unrealistic, curated, filtered and Photoshopped versions of other teens and they often feel plain in comparison. This increases their pressure to produce the perfect Instagram, often taking hundreds of selfies in attempt to get the perfect photo.

In a recent survey, teens were asked which social media platforms most negatively affected their self-image and emotions. Not surprisingly, Instagram was at the top of this list. Instagram has the added negative that teens are competing to receive as many likes as possible for a photo. This is called “Like Chasing.” Since the number of likes someone receives is dependent on the number of followers, this will lead to trying to get as many followers as possible, with the vast majority being people with no personal connection to the teen.

Snapchat came in as the second worst self-esteem app. Although structured differently than Instagram, many teens are pressured into spending time on the app through the concept of Snapchat Streaks. A streak is the number of consecutive days that two people exchange photos of each other. If a day is missed, the streak is then broken. Snapchat rewards longer streaks with emojis, such as the “100” emoji for streaks lasting 100 days, or a mountain emoji for an extremely long streak. Many teens invest an inordinate amount of time keeping streaks alive.

What can parents do to limit the effects of these apps on our teens’ lives? This is a difficult question to answer. The simple answer is to not allow our teens to have smartphones. Since the social structure of teen life is so enmeshed with smartphone use, this solution might increase the very symptoms we are trying to limit, such as isolation and fear of missing out.

One solution would be to delay, as long as possible, the acquiring of a smartphone. Many parents wait until middle school and some wait until high school before purchase. Another option is to initially forbid those apps that are detrimental, such as Instagram, Snapchat, etc.

There are other options that parents can use to limit social media use. OurPact is an app that sets time limits and does an excellent job of allowing parents to control whether certain apps are available to teens. I have seen this app in action and I was very impressed with how quickly parents can control how a smartphone is used.

I would also suggest that there be a bedtime for smartphones with the location being somewhere other than the teen’s bedroom. Many families use the parent’s bedroom as the evening charging location. Just turn the phones off so that any notifications won’t keep disturbing your sleep.

Hopefully this information will help you learn more about the effects on teens and social media, and helps in making the best decisions for your family.

Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor in private practice and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at neil@neilmcnerney.com.

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