Peter Ascough: Does Social Media Use Affect Youth Mental Health?

Mental Health Initiative 2018

by Peter Ascough

A few years ago, the Centre for Parent and Youth Understanding ( put out an article entitled “Facebook Depression.” The article was discussing the impact Facebook has had as a cause of depression among teens.

We need to acknowledge that while Facebook was the first of its kind, allowing people to share, like and comment almost instantly to other people’s “posts,” it has been replaced among teens with newer social networking sites (SNS) like Instagram, Snapchat and, Twitter, while Facebook is more popular among their parents.

During this same time, I was studying Human Development at seminary and I thought I would take this investigation to a deeper level.

A Time of Change

Between the ages of 12 to18, adolescents go through many changes in development. This change in their bodies and brains can cause uncertainty and anxiety in their well-being. During this time of self-discovery, they reach out to family and friends for stability and security, for a safe place during potential emotional turmoil.

Are Social Networking Sites the place where they can find this? Does it play a part in supporting adolescents through this time or does it have the opposite effect of creating more anxiety and confusion?

During my 25 years of working with young people, I have seen many who have travelled this road of development relatively smoothly while some have found it to be a struggle. More recently, this journey is not only played out in face-to-face interaction and through personal observation but also in the public forum of social media. Status updates, comments, “likes” and photos have been used as expressions of adolescents to try to navigate the changes they are experiencing and to solicit support along the way.

I have witnessed adolescents’ statuses that are hungry for a response to tell them that they are okay, that they are normal, liked, popular and special. Some may receive many affirming comments and “likes” acknowledging and affirming their cry for acceptance while others receive little to no attention, or worse yet, negative feedback.

Relational History

If the individual’s history of relationships has been negative, there may already be some negative predisposition about their worth, which could be amplified through the vulnerability presented by posting on SNS.

Many adolescents are presenting information about themselves in the hopes that they will be liked, accepted, and that the responses will affirm how they see themselves, or want to see themselves.

Positive feedback can lead to building self-esteem and a sense of acceptance. On the other hand, negative feedback can result in lower self-esteem and perhaps trigger episodes of depression.

The constant desire for approval and the need to get “likes” or affirmations could also become addictive, resulting in more time spent chasing after these things, focusing more on only the highs and positives of life or the temptation to try risky activities either online or offline in order to report on them later.

This addiction can also result in an overall reduction of health as the youth engages in less physical activity and face-to-face interaction.

When It’s Out There, It’s Out There

The daily interactions that adolescents have at home, school, work or socially also have an impact on this struggle of finding their identity. What sets apart the act of expressing oneself on SNS in hopes of having the “right people” respond is that this expression has also been made available to everyone who is a “friend” on SNS.

When in a face-to-face situation the adolescent may have better control as to when and where others hear or see their attempts for acceptance. By posting it online, it is now available to all others whenever and wherever they may be. This may result in unwanted and negative responses, which are then also seen by others.

There is the potential for this to have a negative effect on the adolescent’s self-image and well-being. The extreme of this is what has been termed as “Cyberbullying,” where one deliberately uses digital media to communicate false, embarrassing, or hostile information about another person. We have heard of the negative outcomes from those who have been victims of cyberbullying. Some have left schools, moved to new communities, and even gone as far as to die by suicide.

The fear of what another may say to or about you in a public forum can have devastating effects on a young adolescent. Unfortunately, the online society has yet to find a reasonable solution to cyberbullying; it certainly needs more time and attention.

Is the Grass Greener?

Envy can also play a factor in reducing self-esteem and an increase in anxiety. There is a tendency when posting on SNS for most users to share only positive things about themselves. The constant exposure to other people’s social activities can lead to the comparison of the user’s social life to that of their peers which over the long haul can damage one’s sense of self-worth and lead to withdrawal or depressive tendencies.

 Real Relationships

Research has shown that adolescents who are securely attached to adults show a greater resilience towards anxiety and depression as a result of participating in SNS. Whereas, those do not have secure relationships with those outside of SNS or who are already predisposed to anxiety or depression can find these symptoms heightened by participating in SNS.

Relationships outside the digital world are more significant than the ones in the digital world, even if it does not appear so. Being intentional in connecting outside of SNS will give opportunity for families, friends, and youth leaders to use SNS to enhance an already positive relationship.

Youth who are in positive, secure relationships with trusted adults are able to explore their identity and the world around them because they have formed a secure sense of acceptance with those who are important to them. As youth explore they have a safe person to return to and process what they have discovered about themselves and their world.

Finding Identity in Christ

But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).

We have the opportunity and obligation to help our youth discover who they are in Christ. To help them to know and understand God’s unconditional love and acceptance, that in Christ they are a new creation. That their value is not based in the opinions of others but in God who created them, loves them and gave Himself for them.

This is just the starting point of the conversation. There is much more that can be said, both positively and negatively about SNS and its impact on our youth as well as strategies to help them navigate this time of development in a digital world.

Peter Ascough

SNS are a part of our young people’s reality and we need to acknowledge that there is the potential for them to be used to build up and encourage youth. My desire is that by beginning the conversation here it will continue to spark discussion.

Peter Ascough is the senior pastor at Kleefeld EMC and a member of the MHI committee. He holds a BA in religious studies (Waterloo), a Graduate Certificate in Christian Spirituality (PTS), and is working on an MA in counselling (PTS). He is married to Irene.

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