Growing up on social media: Women, experts discuss the harm to the mental health of teenage girls

Heavy social media use linked to mental health issues among teenage girls.

Heavy social media use linked to mental health issues among teenage girls.

BLACKSBURG, Va. – Constantly connected and always on their phones.

A Common Sense Media study showed that teens spend up to nine hours a day interacting with their peers and the rest of the world online.

Continued research shows the alarming impact it’s having on teenage girls, including increased anxiety, depression and poor body image.

“I still go on Instagram every day,” said Virginia Tech student Hannah Williams.

While Williams said she has distanced herself from constant social media use, she admitted that even as a college student, social media is part of her everyday life.

Williams is part of the generation that grew up with phones at their fingertips.

10 News talked to both Williams and Virginia Tech student Keranie Chery about how social media affected them during their teenage years.

“If I had free time, I was on social media. Anytime I wasn’t in school or hanging out with my family, I was online,” Chery said.

The pressure and “always-on” aspect of social media can be exhausting, raising concerns about the toll it’s taking on the mental health of teenagers.

Sarah Harig, a local licensed counselor who specializes in children and teenagers said she sees the impact every day.

“Being a teenager right now is really, really hard,” said Harig.

She said this is amplified by the pandemic as teens are spending more time at home, away from their peers.

Harig said that while social media can be a positive outlet for teens to make up that lost in-person time, it can just as easily have the opposite effect.

“I think it can make teens feel very isolated. It can make teens feel like they aren’t good enough and there is often a comparison of their own bodies and their own lives to the lives and bodies of others,” explained Harig.

Documents released in a Wall Street Journal investigation show Facebook was aware that the use of Instagram by some teenage girls led to mental health issues anxiety and poor body image.

Read Facebook parent-company Meta’s response to that report here.

Virginia Tech professor Dr. Jimmy Ivory is an expert in the subject, studying the dimensions of entertainment media on society.

He said that the effects of social media on teenagers is a prevalent conversation and research topic in academia.

“I’m not alone in that I think a lot of the academic community and behavior science that’s concerned with media is concerned about the way media portrays people in general, but especially the way media portrays women’s bodies,” explained Ivory.

He says the issue is complicated, and while the causation isn’t clear, research consistently points to some alarming trends among teenage girls.

“We do know that there is a pretty strong correlation, an observed correlation, between heavier social media use and body image dissatisfaction, especially among young women,” said Ivory. “Social media can prompt unfair comparisons of oneself to an unrealistic image.”

The rise of social media and smartphone technology really go hand-in-hand.

We all now all have high quality cameras on our phones, perfect for taking photos of every aspect of our life, including selfies.

With so many photos of ourselves, it’s easy to point out the imperfections that make us all human.

But just as easily, there are apps and filters to erase those imperfections.

Due to touched-up photos prevalent on Instagram and other photo-sharing apps, Chery said she doesn’t believe teenagers are getting a true perspective of what real teenage life looks like.

“I don’t think so. At least on TikTok, I have seen a lot of trends that is ‘Instagram vs real life,’ showing pictures of people and what they look like online versus what they look like at a normal day in school,” Chery said.

She said; however, those same ‘Instagram vs Real Life’ photos also draw criticism. Chery said the conversation creates a space for female users to be criticized for their imperfections and for trying to cover them up.

“While it’s showcasing this is not reality, it’s opening the floor, from what I have seen, to more criticism to women,” continued Chery.

Even knowing social media is only a snapshot of someone’s life, Chery and Williams admitted it’s still hard not to compare yourself.

“People always post the best parts of their day and the best parts of their life,” said Williams. “Sometimes that will make me feel like ‘Oh, why am I not out doing whatever? Why am I just sitting at home when I could be out at a party or something?’”

Study after study shows the negative impacts social media can have on a teenager, but Ivory said there’s not a clear solution.

“If there is an answer, it probably isn’t in regulation. It is either going to be in responsible corporate behavior, a change in culture - the way we present ourselves online, or consumer pressure. Personally, I think we like to see beautiful imagery - genuine or not. So, this problem is probably here to stay,” Ivory said.

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