The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health


There has been a lot in the news (Forbes, Time) recently about the relationship between social media and youth’s mental health. Many parents and educators are worried about, “How much time is too much time?” and “What is the impact of screen time/social media?” Below is an easy to understand breakdown of what the research says and some possible recommendations for families.

First and foremost, it’s important to keep in mind that smart phones have been around for just over a decade. This means that while the technology is relatively new, the research is even newer…so there is a lot we know but there is a lot what we still have to learn.

What We Know:

  • There are strong associations between excessive screen time/social media use and mental health issues (anxiety, depression, lower self-esteem, and increased suicidality rates) among youth.

  • There is a strong temporal relationship between smart phone market saturation and increased anxiety and suicidality rates among youth.

  • Reduced physical activity and increases in sleep deficits/disturbances are associated with BOTH mental health problems in youth AND excessive screen time use.

 What We Don’t Know:

  • The research is correlational, NOT causational. So, we do not know what accounts for these associations. However, it is likely multi- directional and multi-factorial.

  • Possible explanations may be:

    • Increased use of social media/technology contributes to increased anxiety and depression.

    • Anxious/depressed youth who are already at risk for withdrawal/avoidance are spending increased amounts of time online.

    • Third variables are associated with both increased anxiety/depression and increased use of social media/screen time (e.g., social skills deficits, family systems issues, reduced physical activity, and increases in sleep disturbances).

Recommendations re: Amounts of Screen Time (Source: The American Academy of Pediatrics)

  • Less than 18 months: Avoid use of screen media.

  • Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming and co-view.

  • 2 to 5 years: Limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs.

  • 6 and older: Place consistent limits on the time spent using media, the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity, and other behaviors essential to health. 

Recommendations for Families:

  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

  • Focus on context of screen use vs. strict time limits.

  • Model a thoughtful relationship with devices and recognize that your behavior sets the tone.

  • Set clear boundaries based on developmental guidelines and adhere to them.

  • Teach youth to use technology to make a positive difference in the world.

Helpful Books and Resources:





Jennifer Welbel