Social Media and the American Youth Mental Health Crisis 

Oct 17, 2023 | Social Media

“Social media has had a disruptive and often detrimental role in the well-being and academic success of students across the nation, with the consequences growing more concerning each year,” wrote Ailen Arreaza and Randi Weingarten in September in an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun. Arreaza is the executive director of ParentsTogether and Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Parents and educators are working hard to create a welcoming and safe environment for kids. Now, it’s time for Big Tech to step up as well, and take some responsibility.”

In a recently published advisory, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called the impact of social media a public health crisis. “Extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content continues to be easily and widely accessible by children and adolescents.”

“Social media use by youth is nearly universal,” Dr. Murthy wrote. “Up to 95 percent of youth ages 13–17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media ‘almost constantly.’ Although age 13 is commonly the required minimum age used by social media platforms in the US, nearly 40 percent of children ages 8–12 use social media.” 

“This alarming pattern of young people so hooked on social media it affects their overall wellness is not accidental,” wrote Arreaza and Weingarten in their guest commentary. “Social media companies design their products to keep young users engaged no matter what. Platforms popular with teens—such as TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube—devise addictive algorithms that endlessly feed users content and exploit the desire for social validation from peers. They also invent and release product features like autoplay, infinite scroll, and push notifications to distract kids and draw their attention back to these apps.”

The American Federation of Teachers, the American Psychological Association, Design It For Us, Fairplay, and ParentsTogether recently published a report entitled “Likes vs. Learning: The Real Cost of Social Media for Schools,” in which the partners drew attention to the widespread negative impact of social media on children’s well-being, including increased anxiety, depression, and addictive-like behaviors. They emphasized five guiding principles that social media companies are urged to follow: prioritizing safety for children, protecting students from overuse and addictive-like behavior, maintaining students’ privacy, guarding against risky algorithms, and directly engaging and working with schools and families to help address these issues.

“Students are experiencing an unprecedented decline in their mental health and well-being,” noted the authors of the report. “The community of people who work to ensure students have a safe and supported environment in school—educators, paraprofessionals, mental health counselors, and school health professionals, among others—are overwhelmed by the disruption that is playing out daily in our educational settings.

Schools nationwide have been forced to spend significant resources in an attempt to combat this youth crisis, including hiring additional staff (amid staff shortages) and offering additional counseling and health services for their students, warned Arreaza and Weingarten. “Parents, likewise, struggle daily to set boundaries and limits on social media use that will keep their kids safe and healthy.”

“Likes vs. Learning” called on social media platforms to make “fundamental changes to their products that could dramatically improve the day-to-day experiences of millions of students and educators—both online and in schools.”

“It’s time to combat the corrosive impact of the companies’ products on our nation’s kids and their capacity for learning,” wrote Arreaza and Weingarten in the op-ed. “Profits should never come before our children’s well-being.”

Anxiety and depression are rising among America’s youth. Relentless social media and smartphone use can lead to sleep deprivation which in turn can exacerbate existing mental health issues. Many teens are trying to self-medicate their symptoms with drugs and alcohol—an approach that will fairly quickly worsen any mental health symptoms and create dangerous new problems. 

There is a new treatment option for at-risk teenagers in the Denver area. Avanti Behavioral Health offers an intensive outpatient program (IOP) for clients between the ages of 13 and 18 in Greenwood Village, Colorado. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, holistic, family-centered, and trauma-informed care for teens. 

“The struggles that kids face today on a day-to-day basis are totally different from what their parents experienced,” says Avanti’s clinical director Kathy Rodriguez. “If you look at the component of social media and how that impacts how they view themselves, how they view others, and the trauma that can come from it as well.” Families need to understand these factors to be able to rebuild a support system for the kids with substance use and mental health issues and then tie in their communities. “Families are not  alone.”

We believe that recovery from a substance use disorder is a process that should involve the entire immediate family. We have developed an effective and highly involved method of family counseling. For more information about our IOP and family programming call us at (720) 753-4030. 

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