The use of smartphones, social media, and messaging apps are now ubiquitous in modern life for teens ages 13-17.  The rates of usage in recent years are staggering and continue to grow; according to data from the Pew Research Center:

  • 24% of teens go online “almost constantly,” with a smartphone
  • 56% of teens go online several times a day
  • Nearly 3/4 of teens own or have access to a smartphone
  • 91% of teens go online from mobile devices at least occasionally.
  • 71% of teens report using Facebook; about 50% use Instagram and Snapchat
  • 71% of teens report using more than one social media site

But does this new behavior have an impact on teens development, social life, or cognitive skills?  A new study out of the department of epidemiology at Ottawa Public Health in Ottawa, Canada reported in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social that teens who frequently use social media are more likely to self-report a struggle with mental health issues.

As reported in HealthDay on U.S.News, for the study researchers reviewed data from more than 750 students in grades 7 through 12 who responded to a youth health survey.  They found that over 1/4 of the teens said they used social media sites and apps for more than two hours daily, and only 1/5 said they never did or did so rarely. More than half (54%) said they surfed the web daily, but for two hours or less.

When asked about their mental health, about 2/3 of the teens described their mental health status as “excellent” or “very good,” 1/5 said their mental state was “good” –  but 17% described it as “poor,” 13% said they had contemplated suicide and 1/4 said they had mental health needs that weren’t being addressed or treated.

What researchers found was that teens that used the internet two or more hours per day were more likely to describe their mental health as “poor” and less likely to have their needs for mental health support addressed.

They also found a link between use of social networking and a higher risk for psychological distress and suicidal thoughts.

Researchers acknowledged they don’t know if surfing the web and the use of social media causes mental health issues – or, if those with mental health issues seek out social media and online interactions to avoid feelings of isolation.  They advise against drawing a simple cause and effect conclusion, due to the many factors that can influence mental health in teens.  But, they advise parents and caregivers monitor social media use and consider limiting it to under two hours a day for teens and pre-teens under 17.