Toxic Social Media

February 18, 2020

We live in a society where things travel fast. People can get from one place to the next more quickly than ever. News of all kinds, information, photographs, and videos are available to download and view at the touch of a button. This also means that both positivity and negativity travel with equal speed and have the potential to levy equal impact. In today’s social media-heavy climate, children and teens are linked to the world like never before. Gone are the days where the nightly news or the Sunday paper were the primary way people learned about current events. There are indeed positive elements of social media.

However, there are a large number of negative aspects as well, and these harmful elements can have a highly toxic impact on children and teens.

Social Media Basics

Before we can address some of the harmful or toxic aspects of social media, it is important to understand what social media is.

Many people loosely define social media as the collection of apps on their smartphones that they use to communicate or share photos with family or friends. Still simply define social media as social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In reality, social media is all o these and more. Social media is internet-based technology that helps to facilitate the sharing and exchange of ideas, thoughts, and information across virtual networks and communities. Social media gives its users a means of quick (instant) electronic communication with people who are close by and those who are worlds apart.

Social media is everywhere today and can be accessed through phones, tablets, computers, and in some cases, televisions. All over the globe, over 3 billion people are using social media in some form or another. According to the Pew Research Center, an overwhelming ninety percent of people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine use at least one type of social media. Unfortunately, data is not collected on social media users under the age of eighteen.

Social Media and Negative Influence

Anyone born after 1995 will struggle to remember life before the internet.

“Back then,” phones didn’t stay in our back pockets, and you needed to be home to physically receive a phone call. “Back then,” the post office was a valuable tool for sending letters and postcards to others. Today, being connected via smartphones, apps, and social media outlets is simply a normal part of growing up for many children and teens. As noted previously, many online experiences can be and are positive.

However, there is a robust negative undercurrent running through society today, and that often seeps into the online social environment where children and teens spend a lot of their time. There are a lot of questions out there today about how excessive social media use may ultimately harm the mental health of children and teens. While current research is far from conclusive, it is indeed evident that social media has an important place in the lives of children all over the world. So, what do we know about how social media can impact our youth?

Social Media is Addicting As It is Designed for Excessive Use

Social media platforms are intentionally designed in such a way as to hold the users’ attention for as long as possible. For some individuals, this time online, even if only browsing the constantly updating posts on Facebook, can lead to unhealthy feelings such as envy, inadequacy, and dissatisfaction with one’s own life path. There are even studies that suggest excessive screen time can lead to symptoms associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety, and sleep deprivation.

While these suggestions are by no means conclusive, there is evidence that depression is on the rise throughout the world, as is the rate of mental illness among young people as young as age fourteen. These potential links indeed require further study and exploration. Many people, including mental health professionals, educators, and parents alike, have expressed concerns around increased screen time spent interacting with phones and other technological devices, is causing children and teens to miss out on other important life activities.

Increased Loneliness

Facebook and other associated social media outlets run on “likes,” “comments,” and “swipes.” The feelings that can be triggered by someone liking your post can indeed relieve feelings of isolation or loneliness for a short time, but they will not replace the benefits of face to face socializing. When children and teens feel lonely offline, it is not uncommon to notice a turn towards other ways to compensate for these feelings by using less developed social skills. This can lead to more significant feelings of loneliness in the long term.

Through face to face relationships, we build meaningful relationships. These relationships can be a source of deep and long-lasting personal satisfaction and happiness. They are also built using verbal and non-verbal cues, many of which cannot be duplicated or achieved through online interactions. Can a smiling happy face emoji linked to one’s story can elicit feelings of happiness? Sure. However, face to face feelings and emotions such as smiles, laughter, joy, and pride are capable of building more meaningful bonds through the use of body language and things like touch; again, something that cannot be duplicated through a screen.

Online communication allows children and teens to maintain contact with both those they do not see often and other friends with whom they have existing relationships. When used in moderation, social media can allow people to maintain contact and may even improve their relationships. However, when talking online becomes the dominant form of social interaction, social media use can become problematic as it can eventually lead to feelings and actions associated with isolation.


The insecurities and fears often held inside by a teen can be easily publicized and exacerbated by peers (and strangers) through social media. Bullies can take information, photographs, stories, fears, wishes, wants, or desires and spread them online in ways that can be violent, hurtful and humiliating in just the simple push of a button. Recent studies show that approximately thirty-four percent of students report experiencing cyberbullying at some point during their academic career. Of those students, sixty percent report that it had a significant impact on their ability to learn and feel safe while at school. Digital violence has tangible real-world repercussions.

There are many studies out there that show victims of cyberbullying are more likely to use alcohol and drugs and to skip school than people who have not been victimized. They are also more likely to receive lower grades, experience low self-esteem and health problems, including depression and anxiety.

Finally, victims of cyberbullying are two times more likely to attempt suicide. Current research suggests that suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among adolescents who have experienced cyberbullying has nearly doubled since 2008. Between 2000 and 2018, approximately twenty-five teens lost their lives to suicide after being victims of cyberbullying. Their stories are easy to find online.

Increased Incidences of Teen Depression

There is mounting evidence showing a link between social media use and depression in children and teens. In several recent studies of teens and young adult users who spend most of their free time on apps such as Instagram, Facebook, and similar platforms, a substantially higher rate of depression was reported. Sometimes these numbers were as much as fifty percent higher! As previously noted, one of the most significant differences between teenagers today and in earlier generations is that there has been a drastic reduction in actual face to face interactions with peers. Today, much of a teen’s social interaction is done via electronic means, most commonly through social media.

Many children and teens who spend time away from social media do so while participating in activities with their peers, such as sports and other similar events. This face to face time allows for peer interaction in a non-social media setting. This time being physically with their peers in a face to face setting limits the feelings of social isolation that can be found in teens who do not participate in similar activities.

There is also research that shows when teens already exhibit symptoms of depression; social media interaction can enhance these feelings. Teens who are depressed often look at social media more often. This could be to seek validation, to see reactions to their posts, or to see what their friends are doing outside of the social media bubble. Depending on how their peers react to their posts or stories online, there can be a significant upswing in depressive symptoms.

Social Media and Social Comparisons

Social media can have a significant impact on the way in which teens view themselves when placed against the mirror of societal expectations. Teens who spend a lot of time on social media spend a great deal of time observing the lives and images of other peers and people whom they aspire to be like.

Teenage girls will spend time comparing themselves to images of the ideal girl. Often, these images are created images (not the real person at all). However, still, the individual appears to be thinner, prettier, richer, or more popular than the teen viewing the imagery. Teen boys are less inclined to post beauty shots; however, they may post about their athletic accomplishments, physical accomplishments, or even post photos with their other friends. This can lead to feelings of depression, reduced self-esteem, rejection, and inadequacy among teen boys and girls alike.

Viewing these “competitive” posts can also make teens feel pressure to post similar things in a “keeping up with the neighbor” sort of way.

Addictive and Unhealthy Behaviors

Teen In The Dark | Social Media | Hillcrest

Addiction can be an effect of excessive social media use in children and teens. Research has shown that teen social media overuse can create a stimulation pattern similar to that created by other addictive behaviors.

As a result, the brain will begin to react to social media in the same way it reacts to other “reward” systems associated with addictive behaviors-through the release of dopamine. The dopamine rush occurs when a teen posts something online that is responded to with likes, shares, reposts, or positive comments from their peers. Mental health professionals point out that teen social media addiction is often the result of other co-occurring issues such as chronic stress, anxiety, depression, or childhood trauma. Hence, seeking treatment for these other illnesses at a place such as Hillcrest could be of great benefit.

Apps and sites like Twitter, Amino, and Instagram also provide forums where teens can provide encouragement to others. Sadly, this encouragement is not always positive. Sometimes, they can encourage each other in dangerous and unhealthy ways. For instance, teens who have eating disorders or who engage in self-harm can connect with others and talk about their individual self-destructive behaviors. In some online forums, behaviors such as obsessive calorie counting, exercise, or fasting are accepted and encouraged. In these forums, teens may also learn ways to hide and increase their behaviors, which puts them at greater risk of harm or worse.

How to Minimize the Toxic Effects of Social Media

Currently, there is no definitive proof that social media actually causes depression or other mental health symptoms. However, we do have plenty of warning signs, and the current evidence does point to a correlation between social media use and an increase in mental health and other issues teens are experiencing. As a result, it is wise for parents to check in with their teens regularly about their social platform use to make sure it is positive and healthy. Below are a few steps you can take to help increase healthy social media use.

  • Phone free time before sleep-this can reduce the chance of sleep deprivation and help assure limits are imposed.
  • Teach mindfulness-encourage your teen to be honest about how these platforms impact them and teach them to disengage from unhealthy interactions.
  • Turn off notifications- don’t let consistent notifications from apps interrupt regular day to day activities.
  • Focus on balance-make sure your teens are engaging in social interaction offline as well.

Can Treatment Help Your Teen?

Residential treatment centers such as Hillcrest can help to address the underlying concerns teens often experience alongside social media addiction. Mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and stress, as well as physical concerns such as eating disorders and self-harming behavior, can be exacerbated when social media addiction becomes a problem.

Treatment at Hillcrest can allow your teen time away from the screen. This valuable offline time can teach your teen how to develop and foster face to face personal relationships in an offline setting. It can also allow them to disconnect and address the co-occurring mental health or physical health concerns they may also be experiencing. If you are concerned about how social media toxicity may be impacting your child or teen, look to Hillcrest. We can help you learn what to look for and talk to you about the ways we can help your teen disconnect with social media and reconnect with their peers in a meaningful and valuable way.

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