What Social Media is Telling Your Teen about Mental Health

In the last decade, there has been a big push to reduce the stigma of mental health to great effect. More and more people are recognizing the importance of good mental health and willing to discuss mental illness. As a result, the subject of mental health is significantly increasing on social media. For example, TikTok videos with #mentalhealth in the caption have earned more than 43.9 billion views in the last year, according to Sprout Social.

At the same time, we are facing an epidemic of mental illness among our youth. Depression and anxiety doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youths experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% suffering anxiety symptoms. Compared with 2019, emergency room visits for suicide attempts rose 51% for adolescent girls in early 2021.

Unfortunately, as the need for mental health treatment has grown, mental health care has remained sparse. In the United States, 1 in 3 counties do not have a single licensed psychologist, according to the American Psychological Association, and Americans say cost is a top barrier to seeking mental health help. With mental health care limited, many teens are going without treatment.

Ninety percent of teens engage with social media and use it as a way to obtain news and information. It’s no wonder then that mental health is a trending topic on social media platforms. Influencers are sharing their own mental health struggles, and individuals willing to discuss their own mental health journeys are gaining large number of followers.

As a result, teens are consuming a lot of information about mental health online. On the positive side, social media posts about mental health can provide teens with encouragement, hope, and a sense of being understood or not alone. Especially for a teen who is not able to obtain professional treatment, many social media posts suggest valuable online resources that users might not have access to otherwise.

However, there is also a big risk that your teen might misdiagnose themselves or stumble across misinformation. Social media apps are not designed to prioritize accurate, helpful information, but rather whatever content draws the biggest reaction. Young people cannot always tell the difference between experts and hacks. In addition, it’s easy for people without real-life support to misinterpret accurate content or unfairly label themselves or others, leading to harmful misdiagnoses.

Parents should be aware of the large amount of mental health content on social media and take steps to ensure their children get accurate information and mental health support when needed. Parents should teach teens to be good evaluators of online content. Read our previous blog to discover How to Teach Youth to Spot Misinformation.

Parents can also take steps to establish good mental health practices in the family. Try these tips:

  • Be aware of the warning signs of depression, suicide, and anxiety. If you see these signs, seek professional help for your teen. If there are waiting lists for treatment, then add your name to the list, but keep checking around to see if there are more readily available options. Contact your pediatrician to see if they are able to expedite the process.
  • Be a good role model in taking care of yourself and prioritizing your mental health. Youth are much more likely to use healthy coping skills when they see their parents taking care of their mental health in positive ways.
  • Teach your children positive ways to manage stress. Make a list of relaxing activities and encourage your teen to pick a couple to try to see which ones work for them personally. Examples are exercise, listening to music, spending time in nature, stretching or yoga, deep breathing, journaling, spending time with a pet, meditation, enjoying a hobby, watching funny videos, reading, or getting creative by painting, drawing, coloring, dancing, taking photographs, or other artistic endeavors.
  • Suggest teens limit their overall social media use. The information on these platforms is constant, causes us to negatively compare ourselves with others, and can be worrying or stressful. Give your teen the facts about how social media negatively impacts our mental health, and then make a family challenge (with a reward at the end) for everyone to reduce their social media by a certain amount. Many phones offer weekly reports on screen time amounts to keep everyone accountable.
  • Encourage healthy sleep patterns. Set a “phone curfew” for the entire family (parents need to role model this behavior) so that everyone discontinues phone use within one hour of bedtime. Establish charging stations for the night outside the bedrooms. This will limit screen light before bed, encourage an earlier bedtime, and prevent sleep interruption. Getting a full night’s sleep (7 to 9 hours) has been proven to significantly improve our mental health.
  • Create a safe space for feelings. Teens talk when they trust their grown-ups to listen without judgment or immediate solutions. You must adopt a practice of active listening. That means that when they approach you with a question or concern, you stop what you’re doing (you will miss your window of opportunity if you try to delay them) and seek to understand what they are telling you and how it’s making them feel without interruption or criticism. You do not need to agree with them to try to understand their viewpoint.
  • Balance positive family connections. Whenever possible, stick to the rituals and traditions that your family enjoys. This will bring stability to your teens when other aspects of their life might feel out of control. Establish sit-down family dinners a few times a week. Create space for family time on the weekends, and give your teen a voice in planning how the time is spent.

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