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Social media: A complex challenge for youth and parents to protect mental health

By Yesenia Barrios 

Using social media– specifically apps like Instagram and Snapchat--requires tricky negotiation for young people to engage socially while avoiding its potentially intense toxic impact. 

Dr. Melissa Sporn

“Their brains are not fully formed, not fully myelinated—they’re more at risk for the addictive aspect of these devices and these apps, and (teens) have less protective factors,” said panelist Melissa Sporn, a McLean, Virginia-based licensed psychologist and member of the Safe Community Coalition, a non-profit organization that provides mental health resources to youth.

Sporn was a panelist on an Instagram Live session focused on the impact of social media on youth mental health hosted by Urban Health Media Project. The organization’s monthly “Therapy Thursday” conversations include experts and people with direct experience and are moderated by UHMP students, alums and interns. 

The event came on the heels of The Wall Street Journal’s investigation that revealed Facebook executives were completely aware of internal research that its Instagram platform had a harmful effect on some teens, including damaging mental health and heightening body image issues.

“We’re looking at everybody’s highlight reel,” said Sporn, who works with many Northern Virginia clients. “Nobody is showing us their negative experiences or their failures or their worst moments. And when you’re comparing your everyday life to somebody’s highlight reel, it looks so less-than.” 

Linda Charmaraman, senior scientist at the Wellesley Center for Women and director at the Youth, Media, and Wellbeing Lab, said the comparison problems often affects young girls more deeply .  

“Girls have a natural tendency to have a contingent self-worth based on how other people look, and how they look and compare to others,” said Charmaraman, who is based in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “There is definitely that body-esteem issue, and, of course, idealized selves.”

As an avid social media user herself, panelist Souwade Benissan, a freshman at Fordham University in New York, experienced this anxiety firsthand.

Dr. Linda Charmaraman

“It’s so easy to sell a story or to sell a figment of what your life is that is really easy to get sucked into it and try to make it your life--and that is when it begins to become negative,” she said. “As a female myself, sometimes you want to look a type of way on social media, and sometimes it does get extremely tiring.”

Teens find cultural and generational obstacles limit support from family and elders.

“As someone who is Congolese and African and Muslim, my family members--or just my aunts and uncles--they don’t really understand the severity of mental health,” said Benissan. “It makes it difficult for us to confide in them and tell them ‘I don’t feel good and social media is making it harder for me.’ ”

Many parents lack the tools to help their children navigate social media, and they often respond by taking the children’s electronic devices away. “It ends up being disruptive, not constructive,” Sporn said.

Charmaraman said parents and users should shift their focus away from quantity of time to quality of time, and to consider how content can affect each person differently. 

“It’s about looking at individual susceptibilities, and looking at the family context, looking at what other vulnerabilities they have offline with peers and their mental health in general too,” she said.  

Extreme cases of fear of missing out, or FOMO, constant comparison to others, cyberbullying, and challenges like the MOMO and Blue Whale Challenge can be dangerous, leading to eating disorders, disturbed sleep cycles, increased anxiety, and in some cases, suicide. 

According to a study by the American Psychological Association, suicides increased 60% between 2009 and 2017 among teenagers aged 14 to 17. The increased suicide rates among teens and the popularity of social media use cannot be directly linked, however. 

While the federal government considers regulations, Charmaraman and Sporn agree that teaching and modeling healthy social media use should be encouraged. 

“There are so many ways in which users can be empowered to learn about how they can make it more safe,” said Charmaraman. One way is to modify the features in the apps by muting, turning off, and unfollowing people that cause you harm. 

Benissan tries to be a good example to her 11-year-old sister, using social media to spread positivity. 

She tells her sister, “Don’t be quick to go on social media because it is not as appealing as people make it seem,” she said. “Make sure that what you’re putting out is a reflection of yourself.”

Urban Health Media Project is based in McLean, Virginia, home of founder Jayne O’Donnell, former USA Today health policy reporter. Yesenia Barrios is an intern at the nonprofit and recent graduate of Baruch College in New York.


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