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The Link Between Social Media, Mental Health, and Drug Abuse

Social media can be an incredible asset for connecting with friends – especially in adolescence, a key period for social development. It’s during this time that teens shift away from family as their primary source of support, and begin leaning on a network of peers for everyday gratification. Simply put, teenagers often favor friendships over family. And this is natural. Research shows that these peer connections are essential to establishing a sense of belonging and therefore, a positive sense-of-self.

Social media facilitates connections between friends and family, allowing us to stay in touch with those both near and far. It also gives us the ability to connect with people of similar interests, views, and experiences, through things like organized Facebook groups. However, there are many implications of social media use for teens and young adults, particularly on their mental health.

Adolescence and young adulthood are times for brain development, identity development, as well as social development. These years are also when most mental health issues begin to surface.

Social Media and Mental Health

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, half of mental health conditions (such as depression and anxiety disorders) begin by age 14, and 75 percent by age 24.

There are a variety of risk factors that can make a teen more vulnerable to developing mental health problems; for example, low self-esteem, poor social skills, and extreme need for approval or social support. Peer rejection, early substance use, and stress can also lead to early issues with mental health. Females are at greater risk for developing anxiety, depression, mood and eating disorders than their male counterparts.

Now, let’s think about social media for a minute. Today, over 95 percent of adolescents have smartphones and 45 percent report being online “almost constantly.” Most teens are using instantaneous apps like Snapchat and Instagram to connect with friends and to share tidbits of their lives with peers. Note, the word “tidbits.” Social media allows us to meticulously curate profiles of our lives, consisting only of the photos we want people to see online. These profiles are a snapshot of our lives, completely filtered, containing only the best and most perfect moments. And they provoke what the New York Times calls, “the pressure of perfection.”

When scrolling through social media, teens get the impression that other people’s lives are perfect. They might have perfect bodies, perfect hair, perfect families, perfect homes, and perfect friends to do perfectly fun things with. For many teens, this contributes to a great sense of envy, but also inadequacy. They may feel as though they don’t measure up to everyone else on their social media feeds. They may feel they don’t belong. This can lead to low self-esteem, negative self-image, and depressive symptoms, which many adolescents are already feeling today.

According to a recent article published by the National Institutes of Health, this idea of “social comparison” – comparing our lives to social media profiles – involves documented risks for adolescents, including fear of missing out (FOMO), depression, and anxiety. In addition to feeling inadequacy, the article states, “Adolescents may compare themselves to unrealistic role models such as celebrities and experience frustration or a sense of failure.”

Due to the inherent need of adolescents to fit in and get approval from friends, many of teens use social media to seek approval from a larger social network. In many cases, they are adding up their self-worth and social status, based on the number of “likes” or “follows” they have. Without a social media following, they feel insufficient and out of touch.

Not only can all these feelings lead to mental health issues, they can also lead to substance abuse.

Social Media, Mental Health and Drug Abuse

There is a clear connection between mental health and substance abuse, in that people will often turn to drinking or drugs, in efforts to alleviate difficult emotions or thoughts. For example, those experiencing depressive symptoms may turn to drugs to feel numb the pain, or feel moments of brief euphoria. People with social anxiety may feel more “at ease” after drinking or using drugs, at least temporarily. For teenagers who experience low self-esteem, low self-worth, and a negative self-image when comparing themselves to others on social media, they may turn to drinking or drugs to feel better. This need to self-medicate is a common reason why young people use drugs today.

In addition, by seeing friends and family out having fun “all the time” on social media, young viewers may feel a greater need to do these things themselves. They may develop that “fear of missing out,” and feel tempted to try more risky behaviors like substance use, in attempts to look cool or fit in. This is another common cause of teen drug use today.

A survey cited by the Washington Post found that teenagers who regularly use popular social media outlets were more likely to drink, use drugs, and smoke than their peers. Specifically, they were found to be three times more likely to drink and twice as likely to use marijuana. While social media platforms don’t directly lead to drug use, certain posts, photos, or people on social media can trigger it, or put pressure on teens to drink and try drugs.

What Can Parents Do?

Social media is filled with instances of substance use, whether it’s pictures of parties, someone smoking a joint, or direct messages with drug dealers. But in a world where near everyone has a smartphone and social media apps, parents may feel they have less control or visibility of what goes on in their teen’s lives. That is why it is so important to have open and honest conversations with your teen at all times.

Open conversations with your teen can mitigate the risks of negative feelings, mental health problems, and even substance abuse. Talk to your child about the risks of early drug use in adolescence. Talk to your teen about the reality of social media – and how it is not reality at all. Make sure your teen knows that he or she is beautiful, loved, and supported, and that social media likes (as much as they feel like they matter right now) are not representative of a person’s self-worth. Keep these conversations open, and establish an ongoing sense of trust between you and your child.

Most of all, if your teen needs help for a mental health or substance use disorder, do not hesitate to seek professional help. You can talk to your family doctor, pediatrician, or contact a teen and young adult treatment center, like Turnbridge, for clinical advice. Turnbridge specializes in co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders in young people, and is here to answer your call at 877-581-1793