Managing the Effects of Social Media on Teen Girls

Before they shower, brush their teeth, and eat breakfast, many teen girls start their mornings by reaching for their phones. On the way to school, they might scroll Instagram posts from classmates, share videos from their favorite TikTok creators, or respond to late-night texts from a group chat with their best friends.

These may seem like trivial interactions—although adults are guilty of their own digital obsessions—but for many teen girls, social media platforms have significant effects on their mental and emotional health.

Researchers who studied data on more than 10,000 adolescents found frequent social media use disproportionately affects teen girls’ mental health more negatively than that of teen boys. While this may seem like a side effect of a generation addicted to their phones, the answer isn’t as simple as logging off. Despite the harmful consequences, many teen girls continue to use these digital platforms out of fear of missing out, said Natasha Varela, director of child, adolescent, and family services and therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.

“Teens often have an untouchable, carefree attitude,” Varela said. “They know cyberbullying is possible, but they’ll think, ‘If it happens to me, I can handle it.’”

Counselors, parents, and other care providers can encourage teen girls to develop resilience and healthy habits while browsing online and leverage their social media use to contribute positively to their mental and physical health.

“Even if they act like they’re not bothered by it, teens do want us to pay attention,” Varela said. “They still want to be cared for.”

The Landscape of Teen Social Media Use

Screen time is an increasingly pervasive way that people of all ages spend their day-to-day lives. A 2019 report from Common Sense Media calculated the use of screens by teens and tweens from ages 8 to 18 (not including for schoolwork or homework):

Tweens (8–12 years old)

4:44 hours per day

Teens (13–18 years old)

7:22 hours per day

According to the report, the vast majority of screen time for both age groups is spent watching TV and playing games, followed by browsing social media and other websites.

“A lot of that use is happening at night,” Varela said. “It takes them away from getting enough sleep, which can be problematic for their development.”

When scrolling through social media, teens are looking at various types of content, including posts from their friends and family members, content posted by celebrities and influencers, and targeted ads from brands and companies who sell products and services online.

When it comes to what they themselves are posting, boys and girls differ in the type of content they’re putting out into the world and their emotional attachment to the content they are posting, Varela said.

While boys lean more toward sharing things that are funny or entertaining, “girls are really using social media to connect with other people,” she said. “A lot of teens use this space to present themselves how they want to be seen, but there is a pressure for girls to be worried about others going to perceive them.”

Topics teens post about on social media.

A 2018 report from Pew Research indicates that girls have noticeably different behaviors when using social media and are more likely than boys to post about their personal beliefs, feelings, and problems.

Go to a tabular version of the data at the bottom of the page for information about the topics teens post about on social media.

The Negative Effects of Social Media Use

While the long-term effects of an adolescence shaped by a constant online presence can’t be fully known yet, several researchers have tracked the browsing habits of young children and teens to determine if potentially negative mental health outcomes are related to online activity behaviors.

Cyberbullying

Bullying has long been a source of psychological distress for adolescents. In a 2019 report from The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health on associations between social media use and mental health and well-being, researchers found cyberbullying and lack of sleep accounted for 60 percent of the connection between social media and psychological distress. For girls, social media use was inversely proportional to well-being.

Authors of the study also suggested that effects of social media use are due mostly to what screen time takes teens away from: sleep and exercise. According to the report, “interventions to promote mental health should include efforts to prevent or increase resilience to cyberbullying and ensure adequate sleep and physical activity in young people.”

“It’s hard to admit when it becomes a problem, because there’s pressure to go along with what their peers are doing” Varela said.

Depression

In a 2017 study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, researchers found two types of reciprocal, depressive cycles related to using the social media platform Instagram: browsing and posting.

Instagram browsing was related to increases in adolescents’ depressed mood. Similarly, a teen’s initial depressed mood was also related to increases in Instagram posting. This makes for a painful cycle: The more you browse, the more depressed you are; the more depressed you are, the more you post.

According to the study, both cycles were similar for boys and girls and suggest the need for more research.

Suicide

A 2019 cross-sectional study on teen suicide rates from 1975 to 2016 in JAMA Network Open shows the largest percentage increases in girls ages 10 to 14.

In invited commentary on the JAMA Network Open study, authors suggest that stress from social media could be a common factor associated with suicide attempts. They acknowledge that “this study was not designed … to investigate what the sources of increasing suicide rates in youth more generally are or, even further, why these rates are increasing so rapidly in girls aged 10 to 14 years. … [however], there has been speculation and some empirical data to suggest that the rise of social media use in youth is one factor that may be associated with increased suicidality.” Authors of this commentary go on to cite several studies that reveal more about girls’ social media use, including that “girls use social media more frequently and are more likely to experience cyberbullying.”

When negative behaviors go unaddressed, Varela said the consequences can include “self-harm, feelings of hopelessness, suicidal ideation, and potential for wanting to harm others.”

Negative Body Image

A 2017 study of adolescents’ responses to social media browsing shows that negative self-comparison predicted immediate effect on emotions after browsing others’ social profiles.

Researchers also stated that subjects’ awareness of social media’s curated nature and unrealistic highlight reels can be a helpful protective factor for teens in understanding the difference between reality and expectations.

“External pressure is emphasized more with girls,” Varela said. “There’s an imbalance in the pressure on them to look a certain way.”

How to Build Healthy Habits on Social Media

If teens know that cyberbullying is a guaranteed part of the online experience, why not just sign off?

“There’s a pressure to join in on something negative that’s going on and a desire to appear a certain way to their peers,” Varela said.

She said the best way to address these pressures is with self-reflection and thoughtful intention.

Healthy Social Media Habits for Teens

Find a safe space to check in. Use one-on-one time with a counselor, parent, or friend to confidentially and candidly discuss social and emotional well-being.

Create your own boundaries. What’s a good balance between screen time and other responsibilities? Set limits on your own screen time or social apps.

Respect others’ boundaries. If you know your peers are offline or headed to bed at night, respectfully avoid keeping them awake with messages or social media posts.

Talk openly about self-awareness and emotions. Think about the effects that cyberbullying has on others or reflect on a time when you were affected by similar behavior.

Role-play hypothetically. How would you handle it if someone posted things about you that aren’t true? Who would you ask if you needed help? Talk about strategies for responding—or not responding—before reacting in the moment.

Varela said that when teens think more intentionally about what they’re doing before they post online, they are less likely to share things they regret or that will harm others.

Counseling Teens on Social Media Use

It’s OK for teens to spend time online. Creating an online presence is part of forming their identity, building social skills, and learning about the world on their own terms

“Teens are often moody and resistant,” Varela said. “There’s a baseline, and then there’s behavior that is clinically significant.”

Completely banning social media use can create rebellious and fear-based behavior while falsely instilling the idea that social media has only negative outcomes, she added. Many teens may find that it helps with social isolation, self-expression, and human connections. Instead of forbidding screen time, parents and adults can talk to teens about optimizing technology to benefit their lives.

How to Manage Teen Social Media Use

Identify intentions and habits. Use a face-to-face conversation to ask your teen what their intentions are with social media. Are they using it to make friends or find romantic partners? What kind of impact do they want their social media content to have on others?

Talk about tone and language. Ask teens to reflect on how their words affect others around them. Discuss the short-term and long-term consequences of harmful language.

Set screen-time limits and tech-free zones. Make use of in-app and in-device limitations that restrict screen time and social media access, without blocking it completely.

Stop cyberbullying before it happens. Educate teens about the risks of hostile and bullying behavior, both online and in real life.

Model mindfulness and presence. If you’ve created a tech-free zone at home or at school, make sure you and other adults are abiding by the rules as well.

Look for changes in behavior. Teens may suddenly change the way they’re behaving, like withdrawing from social activities or their overall affect or personality is different.

Create a safe space to report bullying anonymously. Some schools and organizations have online portals or hotlines to report bullying. Make sure that teens know where and how to use them.

“Counselors have an obligation to talk to clients about what their social media use is,” Varela said. That includes assessing their habits, unpacking their emotions related to online behavior, and providing them with strategies for responding.

Balancing Social Isolation with Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is a key reason why young people compulsively scroll through social media apps. Seeing what others are doing, posting, saying or creating online is a means of keeping up with social groups, but it can also have detrimental effects that compound upon the negative effects of social isolation.

“Even though social media keeps us connected it’s not quite the same,” Varela said. “Teens are still feeling trapped and isolated.”

Varela said many teen girls who have started attending a new school during the pandemic are struggling to make new connections with peers that would normally happen in person. By relying on social media for connections, girls have increased pressure to think about how peers will perceive them or judge them online.

Additionally, negative mental health outcomes such as anxiety, depression, dissociation and disrupted sleep can begin to manifest physically. Below, Varela describes several strategies for practicing mindfulness as a means of managing screen use.

Managing Social Media Use During Social Isolation

Give your brain a break from screen time. Schedule or plan time to spend away from screens, such as meal times, exercising and school work, if possible. Think about creative hobbies that don’t involve screens.

Find other ways to connect online. Instead of scrolling, commenting or practicing one-way communications, try other platforms that allow for real-time dialogues like FaceTime, Zoom calls or virtual game platforms.

Spend time with people in your household. In-person interactions like playing games, watching movies or going for walks can help connections feel more real.

Limit consumption of traumatic videos. Consuming news stories about violence and trauma can be harmful to viewers of all ages but especially those who may need parental guidance to process what they’re seeing.

Look out for symptoms of overuse. Practice doing a body scan to identify ways that screen time has created physical reactions, such as headaches, dry eyes, hunger and dehydration.

“Just like if your computer is on all day without being recharged, your brain is going to shut down without any replenishment,” Varela said. “We need time to rest and recharge.”

Parents can play an important role in making sure their teens have the right support and resources to manage the mental health effects of social media and screen use.

“It’s important to teach them about making choices and using soft discipline to set the right limits,” Varela said. “Open communication can help parents be accessible to kids if something is troubling them.”

Many teens have had to make difficult choices about who they want to stay connected to because of insensitive posts related to breaking public health restrictions, racial injustice and other social issues at the forefront of social media discussions. Varela said she encourages parents to offer compassion and empathy for teens’ decisions.

She described several ways parents and other adults can model healthy relationships with social media and screens.

Tips for Adults to Model Healthy Screen Use

Be a student. Ask kids to teach you how to use an app, post a video or create an account for a social media platform as an opportunity to learn more about how they’re using the platform.

Be curious about their interests. Ask teens about the types of videos they enjoy to better understand their interests. You can offer to watch or create videos together which can serve as a bonding experience.

Be mindful of traumatic content. Notice when violent or traumatic videos are making headlines, and be ready to discuss them with your teen. Remember to use thoughtful, sensitive language and ask self-reflective questions about what’s appropriate for viewing.

Be an example. Show teens what a healthy level of media consumption looks like by setting your own boundaries. Avoid posting every moment of your life online, and observe phone-free breaks such as family meals, group activities or quality time.

“A healthy use of screen time is something you do to fill in gaps of activities that are priorities,” Varela said. 

She suggested parents and teens think about what their priorities are and identify what they actually want to spend their time doing—pursuing hobbies, school work, exercising, family time, socializing, rest, exercise—and consider whether phones and social media are taking away from those priorities.

“Is it taking you away from what you actually care about?” Varela said. Re-imagining how to spend time during social isolation can be a pivotal opportunity to create a healthier lifestyle and lead to better mental health outcomes.

Resources for Further Reading

The following section includes tabular data from the graphic in the post.

Topics Teens Post About on Social Media

TopicGirls, age 13-14Girls, age 15-17Boys, age 13-14Boys, age 15-17
Accomplishments41%59%42%49%
Family46%57%28%40%
Emotions34%44%25%31%
Dating Life13%33%18%19%
Personal Problems11%17%14%11%
Religious Beliefs10%17%5%8%
Political Beliefs8%16%11%4%

Source: Pew Research Center. (2018). Teens’ social media habits and experiences.

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Citation for this content: Counseling@Northwestern, the Online Master of Arts in Counseling Program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University