Social Media Use for Teens: What A Family Therapist Has To Say

Most teenagers are using social media now – something that comes with benefits and challenges. Learn what your teen might be gaining from being on social media – and what they might be losing.

Jun. 5, 2024 7   min read

A front view of a group of three teenage girls on the minibus on the way to go on a hiking field trip

Nearly half of U.S. teenagers say they are on the Internet “nearly constantly”, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Most teenagers are on popular social media apps for nearly 5 hours each day, including YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Discord, and other platforms.

With that amount of minute-by-minute exposure to information, opinions, advertising, and endless other stimuli, social media use has a significant impact on the mental and emotional health of teenagers.

Anna LaDelfa, LMHC, is a senior primary therapist with Rochester Regional Health’s Home-Based Crisis Intervention program and frequently works with teenagers. She explains some of the benefits and challenges of social media use among teens, as well as the important conversations adults should have with their teenagers about social media.

Benefits of social media for teenagers

First, some good things about teenagers using social media. There is a lot of community building in these apps. For teenagers who endured the isolating years of the COVID-19 pandemic or are not comfortable with social interaction in general, social media can be helpful in figuring out how to behave in group settings and connect with other people their age.

For people of color or LGBTQ+ teens who might feel like they don’t have a social group where they fit in at their school, social media communities can create a sense of belonging to a group and serve as a support system. They can learn how to deal with difficult situations from other teens’ experiences.

Learning how to talk about mental health concerns is another advantage. Watching videos or talking with other people about depression, anxiety, or other issues can help teens put into words how they may be feeling. In some cases, it could lead to them actually asking for help.

“Sometimes it’s easier to ask for help behind a screen instead of in person – and depending on the situation, it could be safer to ask virtually instead of in person,” LaDelfa said. “Social media can be a gateway to allow these good things to happen.”

How social media can harm teen mental health

Unfortunately, years of experience and research points to the challenges and potential harms of social media being greater than its benefits.

Social media affects everyone differently. Teens will use it in a variety of ways, depending on their maturity level, home culture, social life, economic status, pre-existing mental health conditions, and other factors.

Bullying is a significant problem, with nearly half of American teens saying they have been bullied online.

The amount of time teenagers spend on social media affects their health, as well. Research shows American pre-teens and teens ages 12-15 who use social media more than 3 hours each day face twice the risk of having a negative mental health outcome.

“A good litmus test is observing whether their phone use is getting in the way of them being able to regulate their emotions at home, school, or work,” LaDelfa said. “If it isn’t, then social media use may not be strongly impacting a teen’s mental health. But if it is creating an unhealthy dynamic, this might be worth a deeper conversation.”

Social media use can distract teens from daily responsibilities like homework and housework. Some videos or social media groups can glorify unstable mental or physical health diagnoses (e.g., anorexia, ADHD) through misinformation, idealize unattainable lifestyles, or encourage isolating behaviors.

Another area of concern is a dramatic increase in child pornography. When one teen takes a nude photo and sends it to another teen, it may be considered depending on the ages of the people involved.

“There are potential legal repercussions not only for the child, but also for their parents,” LaDelfa said. “If the videos or images are distributed, then the FBI may get involved.”

Sometimes this happens between teenagers, but this also happens with teens who befriend someone who they believe to be another teen, but is actually an adult predator who ends up exploiting and/or extorting them – a process known as ‘sextortion.’

The effect of social media on physical health

For some teens, social media can start to affect their physical health in different ways.


Arguably the most common ‘side effect’ of being on a phone late at night is losing sleep or having poor quality sleep. Teens often stay up late into the night when they need to wake up early for school or work the next day to browse social media.

Studies suggest teens who are on their phones late at night are more likely to be linked to “depressive humor, low self-esteem, externalizing behavior, and low coping ability.”

Body image

There are accounts, hashtags, and groups on various social media apps dedicated to views of a person’s life or body that are not realistic. Teens can watch or listen to an influencer advise them on how not to eat, or how to over exercise to burn off more calories so they can achieve a certain look, when the habit or behavior is actually unhealthy.

Misdiagnosing health conditions

Over the last few years, more teens have begun searching out different health diagnoses and self diagnose themselves with conditions they may not necessarily have.

Teens may see other teens talking about having conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, or autism and see themselves reflected in those videos in some ways. While this can be true in some cases, it can also be a misdiagnosis or partial diagnosis and may lead to a missed health condition.

“People may say ‘I saw something’ or ‘I hear voices’ and think they have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, when in fact, they may have anxiety,” LaDelfa said.

Learn More: Pressing Pause on Self Diagnosing Tourette’s

How to talk with your teen about social media

The best thing any parent can do for their teenager is to start with having an open conversation with them. Be willing to hear your children out on their position and do your best to hold back on the urge to jump to a conclusion and tell them you know better right out of the gate (even if you do). Being curious will serve your relationship better in the long run.

“Getting your child to think critically is the most beneficial thing you can do because, eventually, they will be out in the real world and will need to reply on the skills they have to make the best possible decision,” LaDelfa said.

Other ways to be actively involved in a healthy way might include:

Being their friend (online): Add them as a friend on different social media apps so you can monitor what they are posting and who they might interact with online

Using parental controls: Verizon, Apple, Android, and other companies allow parental controls to be enabled and various settings turned on so they can’t access certain types of sites or content

Talking consistently: Having regular talks about social media (e.g., ‘I saw this, what do you think?’) lets them know you value their opinion and gets them to think critically

Following the same rules: The phrase ‘monkey see, monkey do’ applies for phone and social media use. Imposing time limits on your own phone use and modeling good behavior for them will help set them up for success as healthy adults.

“Social media is not all bad,” LaDelfa said. “Like anything, it can be used as a tool. But if you use it too much, it’s not good for you. It has to be used in moderation. Having connections to other teens and other people is healthy. Social media use might be different from generation to generation, but it’s a huge opportunity for teens and parents to learn and explore together.”

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