From Twitter to Instagram and now TikTok, social media use by teens is widespread. What impact is it having on their mental health? Some studies show that youth who spend more than three hours a day on social media have a higher chance of experiencing mental health issues like anxiety, depression or suicidal ideation. Some experts argue, however, that social media use can positively impact people’s mental health too. 

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One Detroit’s summer intern Zion Williams, a senior at L’Anse Creuse High School – North, went searching for some answers. She talks with three of her friends — Sophia Francis, Marissa Skoney and Breanne Kollmorgen — about their individual social media use and how it makes them feel. Williams also speaks with Judson Center COO Susan Salhaney about the pros and cons of using these online platforms.

social media

One Detroit summer 2022 intern Zion Williams, a senior at L’Anse Creuse High School in Michigan, sits on the floor of her living room talking with her friends Sophia Francis, Marissa Skoney and Breanne Kollmorgen (left to right) about social media and mental health. | Photo by One Detroit.

Plus, Kevin Fischer, the executive director of NAMI Michigan, and Dr. Shama Faheem, the chief medical officer at Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network, explain how mental health begins to affect teens’ brains as they’re developing and what parents can do to monitor their children’s mental health and social media habits.

Williams produced this story as part of the 2022 PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs Gwen Ifill Legacy Fellow program. The One Detroit team helped produce this report. 

Full Transcript:

Sophia Francis, L’Anse Creuse High School, Harrison Twp, MI, 16: A lot on social media we watch other people socializing sometimes and it’s almost like, okay well what am I doing?

Zion Williams, Student Reporting Labs Intern, One Detroit: Social media seems to be everywhere in our everyday lives. Which brought me to the question, how is it affecting the young people who use it? To find out, I sat down with my friends Sophia, Marissa and Breanne. So my first question for you guys today is what social media platforms do you all use and how often do you use them?

Sophia Francis, L’Anse Creuse High School, Harrison Twp, MI, 16: I mainly use Instagram would probably be the one I use most and I use TikTok occasionally.

Breanne Kollmorgen, L’Anse Creuse High School, Harrison Twp, MI, 17: Just Instagram.

Marissa Skoney, L’Anse Creuse High School – North, Macomb, MI, 17: I use Instagram and Snapchat, but Instagram is just like an art page.

Zion Williams: Do you feel that social media is detrimental or is it beneficial to your mental health?

Breanne Kollmorgen: I think it’s 100% detrimental to me. I don’t like being on my phone yet I still find myself on my phone. I get bored and I turn to social media and I think it just takes up too much of my time when I want to be doing other things, and I don’t make the conscious decision to do something else when it’s right in front of me.

Marissa Skoney: For me, it’s very detrimental. I had to delete TikTok about two years ago because I was getting a lot of panic attacks from just watching the videos. When you get on to certain sites of social media, it’s a lot of people trauma dumping and that was not good.

Zion Williams: To gain some more perspective, I spoke with Susan Salhaney the COO of the Judson Center, a nonprofit organization that provides mental health services in the metro Detroit area.

Susan Salhaney, Chief Operating Officer, Judson Center: Social media really has some positive benefits overall, right? It keeps us connected with people. It keeps us in tune with news and information. We can meet safely meet new people at times. But there’s also a downside to it because that becomes our frame of what can be reality or what a teen may think is reality.

Zion Williams: Social media can help people gain awareness of certain topics, but when does that awareness start to sway opinions? Kevin Fischer, executive director of NAMI Michigan, a mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with mental illnesses, says it’s important to challenge your own opinions.

Kevin Fischer, Executive Director, NAMI Michigan: I ask why? If I give you my opinion. If I say, for example, racism is bad. Racism is a public health crisis. You have every right to say why Kevin? Why do you believe that? What are you basing that opinion on?

Zion Williams: Let’s learn more about the research-based effects of social media. I spoke with Dr. Shama Faheem, Chief Medical Officer at Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network. What effects does social media have on teenagers’ mental health that they’re developing and growing into the adults that they want to be?

Dr. Shama Faheem, Chief Medical Officer, Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network: Multiple studies. There was a study published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2019 that actually looked at social media usage in thousands of youth and found that youth that were spending more than three hours per day on social media were linked to increased risk of mental health problems.

Particularly internalizing problems like anxiety, depression, negative self-image, suicidal thoughts. And this was especially prominent for teenage girls and its impact on self-esteem. My advice for parents would be to monitor and limiting the child’s social media use. The more you’re aware about how your child is interacting on social media, the better you’ll be able to address any problems that may subsequently arise.

Kevin Fischer: My advice to parents, first of all, is to please listen to your children. If a child is exhibiting behavior that leads you to believe that they might be experiencing a mental health crisis, whether it is depression, you’ve noticed that they’ve become more withdrawn. They’re not spending time with friends. Their quality of their schoolwork is suffering. Listen to your children. And if you believe they need help, get them help. Don’t let stigma prevent you from getting the help that your child may need.

Sophia Francis: It is incredibly addictive because you just want more. You just want to be happy and see those things and get away from the world within and get away from it too much.

Zion Williams: There’s a dependency that comes with social media, and Dr. Faheem shares how that can lead to addictive behavior.

Dr. Shama Faheem: Between ages 10 to 12, there are changes in the brain going on that makes social rewards such as compliments, release some neurotransmitter hormones like happy neurotransmitter hormones like oxytocin or dopamine. All of that can make our youth extra sensitive to attention, admiration from others.

Marissa Skoney: I feel like it’s kind of like chocolate. You eat it and you’re like, Oh my God, this is so good. And then like five minutes later, you kind of feel like, Oh.

Zion Williams: During our conversation, I asked Marissa, Sophia and Breanne a more difficult question. Will social media ever cease to exist?

Sophia Francis: You know, one app, one social media platform can die out and another one will probably come and draw people in again. So I think that cycle would probably be really difficult to break. With technological advancements.

Marissa Skoney: It probably just has to be a society thing, but is the whole society just going to decide to do that?

Zion Williams: In conclusion, social media is here to stay. So the bigger question is how do we manage social media in a healthy way?

Sophia Francis: You know, we get caught up in watching other people do things, other people’s lives and not being as focused on our own. So I think it’s important to do things that make you feel as present as possible.

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