The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Social Media has Changed the Way Teens Interact. Is That a Bad Thing?

This post was written by Paige Sangston, a member of the Wellesley College Class of 2024 who took a Calderwood Seminar on public writing taught by WCW Senior Research Scientist Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D.


Paige SangstonLast year, the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory on teen mental health and social media use, and it's a doozy. The advisory argues that teens are more likely to experience depression and anxiety due to excessive social media use, and that high social media use increases the odds of developing ADHD. All of the positives of social media are condensed into a single paragraph surrounded by statistics which seemingly prove that social media is unequivocally detrimental to teens’ mental health.

The Surgeon General’s report is one of many that spreads the narrative that teen mental health is in decline because of social media. While I won’t sit here and argue that there are no downsides to social media, it is important to understand that this narrative relies on studies that are short-term and correlational, and that a lot of literature either brushes over or completely ignores the benefits of social media for teens.

The United States is in the midst of a teen mental health crisis, with the CDC reporting that in 2021, 4 in 10 students felt persistently sad or hopeless and one third experienced poor mental health. Many researchers have looked to social media as the main cause of this crisis, since social media is the most significant change in the way that teens have socialized over the past few decades. The data seems to point to a link between social media use and mental health issues, as the Surgeon General suggested.

However, it’s hard to tell whether increased social media use causes mental health issues, or the other way around. A review analyzing the results of studies that looked at the association between social media use and depression revealed that twice as many studies found nonsignificant associations than found positive associations. This means that while higher social media use is correlated with worse mental health, using more social media doesn’t necessarily cause depression. Since many teens use social media as a coping mechanism and to find communities they can relate to, teens with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues might use social media more or differently than their neurotypical peers.

As someone with anxiety, my screen time shoots up when my anxiety levels rise. This isn’t because using my phone makes me more anxious, but because scrolling through Instagram Reels helps me decompress. So, despite the narrative spread by the Surgeon General and others, the evidence doesn’t show that social media use strongly impacts teen mental health.

Social media also provides a space for teens to connect with friends and explore their identities. Teens are growing up without free and available third places—areas away from home or school—where they can socialize with peers. Instead of hanging out in malls or at skate parks, teens spend time with each other on Snapchat or Instagram. These social media sites serve the same function as in-person interactions. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, digital spaces provide teens with the freedom to connect with their peers, explore their identities, and indulge in curiosities.

As a teenager, my friends and I stayed in touch after school by sending each other memes over Instagram direct messages. We made fan accounts for TV shows, books, and movies and built skills in writing, photo and video editing, and social media management through creating and sharing fan content.

LGBTQ+ youth also tend to spend a lot of time exploring their identities in online spaces. According to Senior Research Scientist Linda Chamaraman, Ph.D., of WCW’s Youth, Media and Wellbeing Research Lab, more anonymous sites such as Tumblr provide safe spaces for teens to engage with their LGBTQ+ peers and learn more about their identities. For queer youth in homophobic areas, these spaces can serve as a lifeline, fostering social connections and creating a sense of community for people who might not otherwise have one. [The Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab recently published a study about online and offline supports for LGBTQ+ youth and the effect on their loneliness.]

Yes, this socializing doesn’t look much like it did 20 or 30 years ago, but different doesn’t always mean worse. Relationships formed between teens through social media are just as meaningful, even if they’re not happening face to face.

In the face of scholarly research that blames social media as the root cause for teen mental health issues, it’s important to remember that social media use isn’t inherently good or bad. Social media is designed to be addictive and more research needs to be done on long-term effects of use. But that doesn’t mean that we have to fear social media, or that we should overlook its positive effects. Next time you use social media, think about how it makes you feel, about the friends that you get to stay in contact with or the interests you get to pursue. Social media has changed the way we interact, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.


Paige Sangston is a member of the Wellesley College Class of 2024 majoring in American Studies.
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No, You Probably Don’t Have ADHD: Why Social Media is Not a Place to Self-Diagnose

Becky Chen

This post was written by Becky Chen, a member of the Wellesley College Class of 2023 who took a Calderwood Seminar on public writing taught by WCW Senior Research Scientist Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D.

It was 1 a.m. I was performing a nightly ritual: lying in bed scrolling through TikTok. I came across a video with the title “5 Signs You Have ADHD” that listed things like forgetfulness, inability to tell a story in a linear manner, and distraction as symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). To my surprise, I found myself feeling incredibly aligned with the video. In the comments, people expressed feelings of validation—of “feeling seen.” As a college student, I was surprised and taken aback but intrigued by the possibility that I had a disorder that could explain some of the experiences I’ve had.

The hashtag #ADHD has garnered 14.5 billion views on TikTok, the social media platform that 67% of teens are on. When you search this hashtag, you can find videos that contain resources, skits, advocacy, and community-building related to ADHD. These videos have been credited with destigmatizing and deconstructing the shame that can often be attached to people with ADHD, while also raising concerns among professionals about how easily misinformation can spread.

One of the main reasons for concern is the increase in teens turning to social media to self-diagnose themselves with mental illness. In the comments section of many of these videos, you can see comments that echo the sentiment I had of thinking I have ADHD.

The conversation about ADHD is especially salient with women and other populations that have been underrepresented when it comes to the diagnosis. For the first time, they feel seen, as studies show girls are half as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD as boys—often due to the phenomenon of “masking,” of being quiet and obedient, in line with society’s expectations of how girls should behave.

One of the benefits of these TikToks is that they make information about ADHD and neurodivergence accessible. Anyone who has a mobile device can tune into the app to learn more. This is especially imperative in cultures where mental health and disability are not often talked about. We see historically marginalized communities often co-construct their identities within the social media sphere, and this can also be true for neurodivergent creators who are able to find community on TikTok.

However, experts worry about these videos hitting the mainstream. There has been an increase in misinformation and oversimplification of ADHD. One study showed that almost 52% of videos on ADHD contain some sort of misleading information. Only 11% of the creators of this kind of content are certified professionals. There has also been conversation about TikTok glorifying neurodivergence, fueling embarrassment among members of the neurodivergent community.

It is clear that there is a huge need to implement mental health education in U.S. classrooms. Youth should not be turning to social media to self-diagnose. We can see this as a reflection of the way our current systems have failed to offer safe, trusted paths when they’re feeling othered. Destigmatizing mental health and neurodivergence is crucial to help youth sort through what is accurate versus misleading information. Another way schools can support youth is in providing more transparent and accessible resources for mental health support and opportunities to get tested for learning disabilities like ADHD, including therapists and counselors.

Since that 1 a.m. night, I have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, coming to learn that many of the symptoms often manifest in similar ways to ADHD. From my own personal journey of exploring ADHD and neurodivergence, I’ve learned that social media can be a powerful space to find community, share your thoughts, and illuminate steps to better your mental health—but it cannot be your only resource on your mental health journey. Leave it to professionals to provide an accurate diagnosis along with research-based steps to improve your mental health.

Becky Chen is a member of the Wellesley College Class of 2023 studying cognitive and linguistic science and education studies.

 

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Facebook: Friend or Foe

This blog post is reproduced with permission from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, NJ. It was first published on the Human Capital Blog.

If you were stressed out and wanted to vent to your friends about it, how would you let them know? Would you pick up the phone and talk, or text? Would you set up time to grab coffee or go for a brisk walk? Or would you post to Facebook why your day just couldn’t get any worse?

As I logged into the recent RWJF/NPR/Harvard School of Public Health-sponsored Stress in America discussion, I identified with the panelists who were dispelling stereotypes about “highly stressed” individuals being high-level executives or those at the top of the ladder. Instead of finding work-related stress as a top concern, as is often played out in the media and popular culture, the researchers were finding that individuals with health concerns, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals were experiencing the highest levels of stress. The panelists talked about the importance of qualities like resiliency and the ability to turn multiple, competing stressors into productive challenges to overcome, and the integral role of communities in shaping, buffering, and/or exacerbating stress.

We often consider our communities as living, working, playing in close physical proximity. But what about the online spaces? What about our opt-in networked friendship circles ... our cyber-audience who sign up to read our posts with mundane observations, proud revelations, and the occasional embarrassing photos?

Media coverage about social media has not been kind—often linking its use with cyberbullying, sexual predators, and depression or loneliness. But recent scholarship on new media demonstrates that interpersonal communication, online and offline, plays a vital role in integrating people into their communities by helping them build support, maintain ties, and promote trust. Social media is often used to escape from the pressures of life and alter moods, to secure an audience for self-disclosures, and to widen social networks and increase social capital. The Pew Research Internet Project found that adult Facebook users are more trusting than others, have more close, core ties with their social networks, and receive more social support than non-users.

So what if we asked adolescents the same question: “If you were having a bad day and wanted to let your friends know about it, how would you let them know?”

In our current research on media and identity, we purposively sampled more than 2,300 individuals aged 12 to 25 from 47 states and 26 countries. They took an online survey that investigated how vulnerable populations (such as racial/ethnic minorities, women, adolescents, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, those with low social status) have used the Internet and social media in healthy and unhealthy ways, particularly during times of stress. We wanted to determine how and why supportive communities could exist in personal online networks that could increase one’s resiliency in the face of challenges.

We found that when young people want to talk about a bad day, they mainly preferred in-person (69%), texting (69%), or phone call (51%) methods to reach out for help. Social media was not utilized as often to talk about stressful times—with Facebook (29%) being more popular than Twitter (7%) overall.

The Stress in America poll results found that 19 percent of adults use social media more than usual during stressful times. In our study, adolescents were significantly more likely to post to Facebook networks about their bad days than emerging adults aged 18 to 25, which can indicate that there are generational differences in how new media can be supportive.

African American participants (19%) chose Twitter to report to their networks about a bad day more often, whereas Asian Americans (40%) used Facebook more often than people of any other race/ethnicity during times of stress.

A surprisingly large number of young people (under age 25) reported that they write blogs, from a low of 37 percent of Hispanic respondents to a high of 60 percent of Asian Americans respondents. Incidentally, individuals who have ever written a blog are more likely to report being unhappy or sad than non-bloggers. Perhaps being more public online about private matters helps adolescents to know that they are not alone in their battles with stress.

Further examination of the use of new media may help us develop prevention and intervention programs and tools to guide adolescents, their parents, educators, and health care workers, and to remind ourselves how the adolescent and emerging adult years can be stressful. Perhaps logging onto one’s Facebook community and jotting down one’s thoughts could be just the right kind of coping mechanism whenever the need arises.

Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D. is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College and a former National Institute of Child Health and Human Development postdoctoral scholar. She is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) New Connections grantee, examining the potential of social media networks to promote resiliency in vulnerable populations.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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