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

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 the function of the content they are posting, said Jil Frey, a clinician at Capitol Hill Consortium for Counseling and Consultation in Washington, D.C.

Boys lean more toward sharing things that are funny or entertaining to them like memes, jokes, and recreation-related posts, explained Frey, who has spent 10 years as a clinical behaviorist consulting with school districts to develop social skills education for teens with social exceptionalities. These posts may be safer subjects for boys, who develop socially a bit later in life, because they're not personal in nature.

“Girls tend to use social media as a way to communicate their feelings and judgments about one another and about their social circumstances, because they develop social skills earlier” Frey added.

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

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.”

Bullying has long been a source of psychological distress for adolescents.

“The difference between bullying now and bullying before social media … is that now there’s a record of it and access to it,” Frey said. As a result, a permanent record of bullying can continue to harm everyone involved long after it’s posted.

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.

“Imagine walking into a room with 60 judges standing in front of [you] every day, and that being the most important part of your day,” Frey said. “That would naturally lend itself to depression and anxiety, even for those who may never have been affected with such symptoms before.”

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.”

Frey pointed out that the strongest negative effects come from what happens after the exposure, not from the exposure itself.

“It's [troublesome] when girls don't have an outlet to communicate with other people—not their peers, but other trusted adults, whomever that might be to them,” she said.

Counselors, teachers, parents, babysitters, older siblings, or even sports coaches can be sources of objective and supportive advice.

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.

The best way to address these pressures is with self-reflection and thoughtful intention, both experts said.

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.

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.

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.

Resources for Further Reading


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

Topics Teens Post About on Social Media

Topics Teens Post About on Social Media
Topic Girls, age 13-14 Girls, age 15-17 Boys, age 13-14 Boys, age 15-17
Accomplishments 41% 59% 42% 49%
Family 46% 57% 28% 40%
Emotions 34% 44% 25% 31%
Dating Life 13% 33% 18% 19%
Personal Problems 11% 17% 14% 11%
Religious Beliefs 10% 17% 5% 8%
Political Beliefs 8% 16% 11% 4%

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

Back to graphic.

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