After a year of lockdowns, remote schooling and the disruption of social norms, teens and young adults are reporting growing levels of depression, stress and anxiety. They also admit to turning to social media and telehealth to find help.
A Common Sense Media study, “Coping with COVID-19: How Young People Use Digital Media to Manage Their Mental Health,” found that while depression rates increased significantly from 2018, so, too, has the importance of social media.
Kimberly McWilliams, integrated site care director for Terros Health in Phoenix — a health care organization offering mental health services — also has been seeing an “incredible” increase in depression and anxiety among the children and young adults Terros serves. And sadly, she says there has been an increase in substance abuse among older kids.
“It has been very challenging for these kids,” says McWilliams, who is a licensed professional counselor. “They need socialization.”
Common Sense Media partnered with Hopelab to better understand how young people have been using social media and digital health tools to take care of their mental health during the pandemic. Nearly four in 10 teens and young adults (38 percent) surveyed in the fall of 2020 reported symptoms of moderate to severe depression, up from 25 percent just two years ago.
Depression was much higher among young people who reported a coronavirus infection in their family (51 percent) than among those not directly affected by the coronavirus (36 percent); and those with depression were twice as likely to say social media was “very” important for getting support or advice than two years ago (26 percent vs. 11 percent in 2018).
The good news is that despite the negative content they see online — especially LGBTQ, Black, Latinx and female youth who are frequently exposed to homophobic, racist and body-shaming content — digital media has been a lifeline for many of them to access critical health information, stay connected to their peers, find inspiration, and receive comfort in a difficult time. In fact, 43 percent of those surveyed said that using social media made them feel better when they were depressed, stressed or anxious, compared to 27 percent who said so two years ago.
“There are some wonderful apps out there,” McWilliams concedes, but she adds kids spend a lot of time on YouTube and follow various people on social media, some of whom may not be helpful or appropriate. Helpful apps include Calm and Headspace, as well as coloring apps for mindfulness, two-minute meditation apps and food-diary apps, so kids can track what they are eating and how it affects them, McWilliams says.
“We’ve actually learned from them,” she says of Terros’ clients. “Kids are taking control and asking for certain apps to be included in their treatment plans.”
The report illustrates the nuanced role social media and technology play in the well-being of teens and young adults. So before you take away your child’s phones and devices, remember they are using them to connect with family and friends, seek health information online and access mental health tools.
“We all have a shared responsibility to create the societal conditions to help young people thrive,” says Dr. Sandra R. Hernández, president and CEO of the California Health Care Foundation, a partner on the research report. “Teens and young adults faced substantial mental health challenges before the pandemic took hold of their lives. Their schooling and social connections have been radically disrupted, and they are relying even more heavily on digital media. We are just beginning to understand the consequences of these trends.”
One concern about the increased importance of social media to teens is that because of online schooling, parents may not recognize what their children are doing online, particularly if they think their son or daughter is doing homework. And with kids getting online at an earlier age, it’s important that parents and caregivers be more aware, McWilliams says.
Phoenix resident Christine Lorello says her 16-year-old son liked being online for school and other activities, but she encouraged him to participate in basketball to keep him active and involved. “He stayed connected with his friends on apps like Snapchat, FaceTime and video games,” she says. “He had the best of both worlds … I believe the quarantine period altered his desire to attend classes in person where his socializing appetite was satisfied before.
“Technology has been a blessing and a curse,” Lorello adds. “I am saddened by his response because I know, in hindsight, the importance of the high school experience.”
Scottsdale resident David Weissman says his 18-year-old daughter is in the throes of deciding where to go to college, and the pandemic has been tough on her, but he says she has adapted, like many of her friends. “I don’t think she has been depressed, but rather resentful of the burden placed on her to keep us safe when she never feared for herself,” he says. “From mask-wearing to self-imposed seven-day quarantines, she did what she had to [do to] live by the rules.”
Weissman says her group of friends was restricted, “but she hated that we made her sit in her own car to see one friend a parking spot away and that no one could come in the house, even during all those 110-degree days. … She desperately missed going to school,” he adds.
Jen Rogers saw a “huge” change in her 9-year-old daughter’s behavior because of social media. “The more time she spent on screens, the more issues she had making the transition away from them,” says Rogers, a Scottsdale resident. “Honestly, we always try to cut back screen time, but with how crazy life is, that often is the first thing to get overlooked.”
Rogers says that at the end of last school year, their daughter began seeing a therapist. “She is normally a very anxious person, and her worry level was high. [Therapy] was very helpful. … The crazy thing is she contracted COVID in school in January, and really was amazing through her 10-day quarantine period,” Rogers says. “With two infant babies in the house, she stayed in her room, which we set up like an ‘apartment’ with a big TV and a cooler with her favorite drinks. We would Facetime for our bedtime routine and stay on until she fell asleep. She was pretty solid mentally until about day seven, when the cabin fever hit.”
Rogers said she signed her daughter up for Messenger Kids, and it improved her mood during the long summer months. She also let her daughter use an old cellphone so she could Facetime with grandparents and other family members. “We kept the contact list limited,” Rogers says. “She is a very social person, so she’s always happier when she’s talking and interacting.”
Margaret Laws, president and CEO of Hopelab, says understanding how young people respond to challenges — such as isolation, loneliness, depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns — will help these issues be addressed more effectively. “These findings suggest the need for even greater investment in the digital mental health space and equitable access to these important tools,” she says.
Media tips for families
Nearly 38 percent of teens and young adults reported symptoms of moderate to severe depression in 2020. And while negative content on media has been known to contribute to mental health concerns for teens, the young people surveyed reported social media and online resources helped them find help for stress and depression. Here are a few tips for talking with kids about using social media responsibly:
Talk to your children about the places they feel supported online. Kids who feel safe, supported, accepted and understood are better able to make it through difficult times. Ask what they like about platforms and sites. What is it about the community that gives them a sense of belonging? Ask who they follow on social media and what they like about them. Show interest in their online lives and try not to judge.
Ask if they ever see things online that make them feel unsafe. Do they ever see racist comments, hate speech or bullying? How do they respond? Walk them through steps they can take: They can ignore the person, take screenshots for evidence, block the person on the platform and report it to an adult. Tell them they can always come to you when something upsets them.
Think twice before taking away the phone. Before you shut off your child’s phone or tablet as a consequence for their behavior, think about whether they’re using the device to cope with mental health problems. The online world — despite its faults — can help kids stay connected to friends, find a supportive community and get trustworthy health information. If you still need to take away their device, make sure they have access to alternative resources.
Pay close attention to social media if your child is already struggling offline. Watch for warning signs of mental health problems. These might include drug/alcohol abuse, loss of energy, frequent sadness or avoiding contact with others.
Create a family media agreement. This can help you set expectations for what they do online and how much access you have to their social media accounts and can help guide their decisions when you aren’t around. Parental controls can help you manage what they do when you’re not there. Common Sense Media offers a free family media agreement form at commonsensemedia.org/family-media-agreement
Get help. If a young person is threatening to harm himself or herself or needs immediate help, call the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text its Crisis Text Line at 741741. Phoenix-based Teen Lifeline is a crisis intervention and suicide hotline that lets kids and teens talk to young peers who are trained to help. Teen Lifeline’s Call and Text Crisis Line is 602-248-8336 (TEEN).
For its report, “Coping with COVID-19: How Young People Use Digital Media to Manage Their Mental Health,” Common Sense Media used data from a nationally representative survey of more than 1,500 14- to 22-year-olds across the United States, conducted between September and November 2020. Nearly four in 10 teens and young adults reported symptoms of moderate to severe depression. Here are some key takeaways. Read the full report at commonsensemedia.org/research
Social media is important to teens. The vast majority of youth say social media has been “very” or “somewhat” important during the pandemic in staying connected to friends and family (86 percent), staying informed about current events (77 percent) and learning how to protect themselves from the virus (70 percent). More than 8 in 10 youth (85 percent) looked for health information online, with “depression,” “stress” and “anxiety” among their top searches.
Digital health tools are popular. Nearly 7 in 10 (69 percent) of the 14- to 22-year-olds surveyed reported used mobile apps related to health, including apps for sleep, meditation and stress reduction. Nearly half used digital tools to connect with health providers — doctors, nurses or therapists — through video appointments, texting, online messaging systems or other apps, and the vast majority found these services helpful.
Social media is a fact-finding tool. Social media played an especially important role for those directly affected by COVID-19. Young people who say that they or a family member had been infected by the virus were more likely than their peers to consider social media “very” important in keeping up with current events (47 percent vs. 32 percent) and learning how to protect themselves from the virus (43 percent vs. 29 percent).
Nearly all LGBTQ+ teens and young adults seek online health resources. The majority of LGBTQ+ youth (74 percent) encountered homophobic content online and on social media, and 65 percent reported symptoms of moderate to severe depression — twice the percentage of non-LGBTQ+ youth. Almost all (98 percent) of LGBTQ+ youth used digital tools to find health resources, and more than half used telehealth services.
Black youth are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. One in five Black youth had a coronavirus infection themselves or in the family (twice as high as white youth). The majority of Black youth (69 percent) encountered racist content online or on social media, and 37 percent reported symptoms of moderate to severe depression. Ninety percent of Black youth have used digital tools for health purposes, while four in 10 used telehealth services.
Hispanic and Latinx youth have more family responsibilities during COVID-19. Nineteen percent of Hispanic/Latinx youth had a coronavirus infection themselves or in the family, and almost a quarter had taken on more family responsibilities since the start of the pandemic. Sixty-seven percent encountered racist content online, and 37 percent report symptoms of moderate to severe depression Most of the Hispanic/Latinx youth (93 percent) used digital tools for health purposes, and almost half used telehealth services.
Girls seek more mental health help online. Girls are more likely to search for mental health information online (71 percent vs. 49 percent) and report using mobile apps for meditation, mood tracking and stress reduction. More teen girls (ages 14-17) said they “often” encountered sexist content on social media in 2020 (24 percent vs. 14 percent in 2018), but the percent who say social media makes them feel “less lonely” has also increased, from 25 percent in 2018 to 50 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Youth at risk for substance abuse use are finding help online. One in ten young people in the United States are at risk for problematic drug or alcohol use. The vast majority of those at risk are accessing digital health tools, and they are doing so at higher rates than others their age: Forty-six percent have searched for information on drug and alcohol abuse, compared to just 15 percent of those not considered at-risk.