Social Media in the Digital Age: How It’s Affecting Student Mental Health

Social Media in the Digital Age: How It’s Affecting Student Mental Health

Experts at The Hartford provide insight on how social media might be linked to declining mental health in youth.
Michael Lacroix, Medical Director, The Hartford
Michael Lacroix, Medical Director, The Hartford
Melina Griss
Dr. Melina Griss, Clinical Neuropsychologist and Medical Director at The Hartford
Heather Savino, Underwriting Officer and Industry Lead, The Hartford
Heather Savino, Underwriting Officer and Industry Practice Leader, The Hartford
The youth mental health crisis is receiving increased attention from news sources and professional researchers as discussions arise about social media's link to declining mental health. This leads to the question, does social media affect mental health? Is there a correlation between the two? More importantly, how can educational institutions and administrators continue to support students in an everchanging environment?
“The current youth mental health crisis is driving increased news coverage, additional research and larger discussions about the link between social media use and declining mental health.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 25% of teens ages 13-18 have some form of anxiety disorder, with almost 6% suffering from severe anxiety disorders.1
“Mental health disorders have been increasing for the last 10 years. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness increased about 40% in the last 10 years prior to the pandemic,” said Dr. Michael Lacroix, psychologist and medical director at The Hartford.

Is Social Media Bad for Mental Health?

There are many factors that can have an impact on adolescent and young adult mental health, including social media and the COVID-19 pandemic. With the rise of social media, experts have seen an increase in self-diagnosis, which leads more individuals to seek out mental health services.
Heather Savino, education industry practice lead at The Hartford, said she has seen increased strain on the education industry as a result of the mental health crisis. “School administrators are feeling a pattern of mental health deterioration in students, and social media plays a profound role in that. During the pandemic when students were sheltered at home, the saturation of social media increased. Now, we see an increase in students under the care of school counselors. It is wonderful to see them getting help where needed, but schools have struggled to keep up the resources they need to adequately meet the growing demands.”
Dr. Melina Griss, clinical neuropsychologist and medical director at The Hartford, explains that there isn’t a causal link between social media and mental health, but added that it’s a “correlational relationship.”
“The question is, are students who are more anxious and depressed turning to social media? Or is their social media use contributing to an increase in anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders?” Griss asked.

Social Media Effects on Mental Health

While social media can be a positive tool that normalizes experiences, decreases social isolation and provides social support, it can also become a space for taunting and bullying that you wouldn’t see in face-to-face interactions. Social media is affecting the way students interact with others. According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, 95% of teens use a smartphone and 45% say they are online almost constantly. About 70% of teens are on Snapchat and Instagram, while 85% are on YouTube.

How Can Schools Address Student Mental Health and Social Media?

According to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), the nationwide ratio of school counselors to students is an average of 1:408 (K-12) versus the Association’s recommendation for no more than 1:250, illustrating the increased demand for care and strain on resources.2 This has resulted in increased pressure on teachers and school administrators to offer mental health resources in addition to their daily teaching responsibilities. Schools are responding to this strain with a variety of strategies. “Due to this increase, schools are bringing in additional counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers. Teachers are being trained to support the Mental Health needs of their students as a critical part of their SEL. They are building out wellness panels and advocacy groups and they are bringing in their community to generate awareness,” said Savino.
Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages depending on how social media is used. Educational institutions have an opportunity to create a positive social media environment for students. By creating an environment where students feel they can have safe conversations about social media, they develop a trust to confide in teachers and administrators when issues arise.
“Social media has developed quickly, the curriculum hasn’t caught up,” said Lacroix. “Students are navigating their way through the maze of content with little guidance.” Teachers and school administrators can help students learn social media literacy skills by encouraging them to be deliberate and selective in the content they engage in. In turn, this creates a strong sense of critical thinking that students can carry with them as social media continues to evolve.

Supporting Healthy Social Media Use

School officials can use different measures to try and improve the effects of social media on student mental health by doing things like:
  • Encouraging students to limit their time on social media platforms.
  • Having open discussions about what students are posting. Ask, 'is this something you would say in an in-person setting?'
  • Reminding students that not everything they see online is an honest presentation of others experiences or lives.
  • Talking to students about unfollowing any profiles or websites that don’t bring them joy.
  • Advocating for students to report posts that are hurtful or could cause harm to others.3
Schools can lean on local community organizations and nonprofits, such as the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), for education about mental health conditions and support for kids, teens and young people that can supplement the schools’ resources, Lacroix noted. For example, NAMI offers información about social media and mental health, support groups for families, a new resource book y a guide designed for college students.
1 National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Mental Health In College”
2 American School Counselor Association, “Student To School Counselor Ratio 2021-2022”
3 National Education Alliance, “Social Media’s Impact on Students’ Mental Health Comes Into Focus”
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