Social media contributes to anxiety, depression and poor sleep in teens

by Gary Gilles

social media and anxiety in teensAs a society we have finally embraced the reality of social media. What seemed like a faddish trend just a few years ago is now a firmly embedded part of daily life. According to the statistics portal Statista, 73% of Americans have at least one social network profile. While this statistic covers all ages, teens tend to be the most active users of social media. It’s not uncommon for a teen to visit several social media sites daily to feel “connected” to their peers.

But, does all of this “connectedness” have a downside? A recent study should cause parents to take a closer look at their teen’s social media habits. The study found that many teens feel compelled to be perpetually connected to social media at all times of the day and night, thereby affecting their sleep habits.  More specifically, night-time social media use was related to poor sleep quality, lower self-esteem and higher rates of anxiety and depression. It appears that the perceived need to immediately respond to posts and texts, especially at night, keeps the teen in a constant state of anticipation, turning on the stress response as a result.

Other studies have shown similar findings. For example, adolescents engaged in excessive social media communication have shown to have low satisfaction levels about their school experience. Daily social networking of more than two hours a day was also associated with high levels of psychological distress among adolescents. Both of these behaviors were attributed to significant sleep disturbances from excessive social media use.

Sleepless in media land

We already know that a typical adolescent has a disrupted sleep cycle just by virtue of hormonal social media and sleeplessnesschanges that occur in development. Add to this the moderate stress of being “on” for social medial correspondence throughout the night and you have a combination that easily leads to chronic sleep deprivation. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average teen should get about 9 hours of sleep a night. Their brains and bodies are still developing and they need this amount of sleep to function optimally. Yet, only 8 percent of teens are getting that recommended amount. A recent study found that up to two-thirds of high school students get less than seven hours of sleep per night. That is an ongoing sleep deficit of two hours each night.

Media addiction?

In a University of Maryland study, 200 college students were asked to give up all media for 24 hours and then asked to write about their experiences. Many students described their feelings of abstaining from all media, including social media, in terms typically associated with drug and alcohol addictions, such as “very anxious, craving and jittery.” The researchers concluded that many young people are simply not able to tolerate the anxiety that accompanies disconnecting from media for any prolonged amount of time.

So, what are we to make of this seeming addictive grip that social media has on some adolescents? Should we simply consider it a consequence of modern adolescent life and tolerate it in our children because so many other teens are also obsessed with social media? Or, should parents intervene and possibly force their teen to turn off all media after a certain time of night to reduce stress and get better sleep? These are not easy questions and they certainly don’t have simple answers.

Virtual vs. real relationships

While social media does give the impression of “connectedness” in the most casual sense of the term, it can’t be a substitute for the far more challenging and meaningful engagement one gets in face-to-face interaction. That is probably the most troubling part of this whole landscape for me. I fear that young people will be lulled into thinking that all this virtual exchange of mostly trivial information will suffice for preparing them for the hard work of building and sustaining real relationships. As most adults know, you can’t build a strong dating relationship, marriage or raise emotionally healthy children by texting little quips. These core relationships require a person to engage on a deeper level to build emotional closeness. This is often a messy and complicated process and one that takes a lot of practice. I wonder whether the obsession with social media in many young people will afford them the practice they need to develop meaningful, long-term relationships in the future.

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