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The Impact of Social Media on the Mental Health of Middle and High School Students

5 minute read

It’s hard to overstate how much social media has overtaken the lives of high school and college students.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, surveys show that 90% of teens have used social media, and 75% of them have at least one active social media profile. It’s clear that social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat have become an integral part of teens’ lives.

At Polygence, we’ve paid close attention to this development, especially with regards to how social media is impacting the mental health of students. We published a white paper about the ongoing mental health crisis for students and how passion projects and positive storytelling can help support the mental health of students.

But in this article, we’ll take a closer look at social media and the role it plays in the mental health of students. There has been a significant amount of research done recently on the relationship between social media and mental health, and we’ll explore both the positive and negative aspects. We’ll also discuss how you as a parent can navigate your student’s social media use and provide practical strategies for healthier social media habits.

The Positive Effects of Social Media on Students

It wouldn’t be entirely fair to only discuss the harmful effects of social media on students. Social media, as with any technology, plays a complex role in society and to say that it only hurts students misses the full picture. 

For students, social media can allow students to stay in touch with friends and family, regardless of geographical distance or country. Social media can also be a great source of educational content and news - there is a new wave of educational content creators who have taken to YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok to present and teach engaging content on academic topics. Students can also become more aware of causes and developments that are happening around the world, giving them an opportunity to become more informed and culturally aware.

Finally, social media can actually serve as a great outlet for students to express their creativity and share research or passion projects they’ve worked on. Let’s say that a student has worked super hard on a passion project that demonstrates skills they’ve gained and what excites them. Social media platforms can be a great place for a student to proudly showcase what they’ve accomplished and inspire other students to do the same.

The Harmful Effects of Social Media on Students

Unfortunately, there are also a slew of harmful effects of social media on students, and mainly they relate to the deteriorating mental health of students. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, found in 2017 that “teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide).” In a 2021 Atlantic article, NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (who worked with Twenge in collecting the research on the relationship between social media and mental health) found that the timing of spikes in suicide and self harm for adolescents align very closely with the sharp increase in social media use in the last 10 years or so. 

If you observe a student who’s active on social media for just a few minutes, you can quickly understand how these harmful effects might occur. Adolescents see a lot of other people on their feed, which display certain body images, glamorous lifestyles, or surface level signs of happiness and satisfaction that might make students feel worse about their own lives. There are constant opportunities for comparison. Another large part of the issue is the misleading idea that social media allows us to be more connected socially with others than ever before. The truth is that the interactions that occur on social media, such as likes, comments, or direct messages, are hardly a replacement for true relationships. The misconception that you can maintain fulfilling relationships by relying on social media has created a void for many students, which is why research is finding that adolescents are lonelier than ever.

How to Help Students Navigate the Social Media Landscape

Although it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the harmful effects of social media on the mental health of students, there are also practical strategies that you can discuss with tweens and teens to help them use social media in a healthier manner. 

You can first talk about setting boundaries and clear time limits for social media usage. Encourage your tween or teen to set a clear time limit goal for themselves and challenge them to achieve that goal one day at a time. It’s unrealistic to assume that a student can immediately stop using social media altogether, but if they break it down into smaller goals, they can then slowly begin to reduce their screen time.

Moreover, talk with your middle or high school student about prioritizing real life interactions. Encourage them to spend quality in-person time with their friends. This is crucial because students may falsely believe that social media can serve as a makeshift replacement for real life connection. Hanging out in-person more often can help tweens and teens see that liking or commenting posts does not compare at all to catching up with a friend in-person.

Another practical strategy to help with healthy social media use is to limit multitasking. Often, students will have their phones on them while they’re studying or doing work. This can become a massive distraction when notifications pop up on phones and prevent students from completing work efficiently. This can then have a downstream effect on student performance in school and the amount of sleep that a student gets. 

Finally, empathize with your student. Social media affects us all differently; while some students may appear to have no issue at all with their social media use, others may find that it’s severely affecting their mental health. As a parent, try your very best to be patient and work together with your child to find effective solutions.

Polygence’s Role in Supporting the Mental Health of Students

At Polygence, we believe that we have the opportunity to positively impact the mental health of high school students. Through empowering students to pursue unique passion projects that excite them, we believe that we allow students to have more control over their education. We discuss this thoroughly in our white paper on student mental health. The feeling of control is especially important in a time where many students feel that they’ve lost some control over their lives. ​​One of many serious psychological tolls of the pandemic is the sense that we no longer have control over our lives. Trends and challenges within the college admissions process have become increasingly arbitrary, leading to confusion and anxiety for high school students.

However, we found that through our Polygence mentorship program, 84% of surveyed students felt that their work with their mentor made them feel more optimistic and in control of their academic future. By giving students the agency to work hard on a project that they’re passionate about, students develop a sense of purpose and identity, which research has shown has an outsized positive impact on our mental health. 

We look forward to continuing to support the mental health of middle and high school students in a time where they are under more pressure than ever before.