Smartphone and social media use linked to mental health issues in teens

keyboard with social media logos
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A new article in the CMAJ reveals a link between the use of smartphones and social media and mental distress and suicidality among adolescents

The article, smartphones, social media use and youth mental health, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal review evidence that suggests an association between the heavy use of social media and the negative impact on mental health. The authors suggest this should be one of the factors considered by clinicians and researchers who work in the field of youth mental health.

Creating a healthy balance

The analysis, led by The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), focuses on smartphone use and does not consider online gaming. It contains guidance for physicians, parents and teachers on how to help teens manage smartphone and social media use for a healthy balance between sleep, academic work, social activity, interpersonal relationships and online activity.

Dr Elia Abi-Jaoude, lead author, Staff Psychiatrist, SickKids, and Toronto Western Hospital, University Health Network, Toronto, Ontario said: “Physicians, teachers and families need to work together with youth to decrease possible harmful effects of smartphones and social media on their relationships, sense of self, sleep, academic performance, and emotional well-being.”

Topics discussed in the analysis include:

  • What are the effects of social media on adolescents’ sense of self?
  • Can social media encourage self-harm?
  • Does excessive smartphone use affect mental health?
  • How does social media and smartphone use affect sleep require for mental health?
  • Are some teens more vulnerable to mental health effects than others?
  • How can physicians use this information in clinical practice?

The analysts wrote: “Given the importance of engaging youth in mitigating potential harms from social media, a prohibitionist approach would be counterproductive. For adolescents today, who have not known a world without social media, digital interactions are the norm.

“The potential benefits of online access to productive mental health information include, media literacy, creativity, self-expression, sense of belonging and civic engagement, as well as low barriers to resources such as crisis lines and Internet-based talking therapies, cannot be discounted.”

Some suggestions made by the authors to help teenagers manage smartphone and social media use include:

  • Physicians – Recommend teens reduce social media use rather than eradicate it completely. Encourage parents to be part of the conversations.
  • Parents – Discuss appropriate smartphone use with teenagers to determine together how to reduce risks and set boundaries. Model responsible smartphone use.
  • Schools – Negotiate developmentally appropriate smartphone use in the context of a relationship built on mutual trust and respect for autonomy.

However, a recent poll from the US indicates that 54% of teens think they spend too much time on their smartphones and about half said they were cutting back on usage.

The authors of the analysis explain: “Encouragingly, youth are increasingly recognising the negative impact of social media on their lives and starting to take steps to mitigate it.”

Resources, such as the American Academy of Paediatrics Family Media Use Plan, a Family Media Toolkit and information from the Centre for Humane Technology provide tips on how to develop social media use plans and support youth.

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