The relevance of social media in 2020 is evident. Amid lockdowns, when many workplaces, schools, and other public spaces shut down, we resorted to social media to connect with our peers, coworkers, and friends. Furthermore, social media platforms were employed to spread awareness about pertinent causes, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for police reform. Social media has significantly propelled social change. Social media’s position as a savior in the COVID-19 and social justice landscape glorifies its utility, value, and accessibility. Despite these benefits, social media has adverse health consequences that desperately call for attention, specifically in adolescents. Social media attacks three core aspects of wellbeing, all of which are essential to the long-term health of teenagers. Social media is a widespread addiction, and it is becoming so commonplace that it seems strange to not even own an account. Although social media has provided a platform on which social change can rapidly advance, the prevalent use of social media platforms poses a hazard to the mental, emotional, and physical health of adolescents.

The Influence of Social Media

In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg made history. In his cramped Harvard dormitory, he created Facebook, which would become the world’s largest social networking site. Facebook popularized social media and sparked a widespread attachment to online networking. Soon, new social media sites such as Twitter, Instagram, VSCO, Tumblr, and Snapchat began to acquire users. Now, social media is a standard among adolescents. There is much to love about social media. We can immediately and accessibly connect with others. We can share—and sometimes boast—the glamor of our lives, and we can also get a glimpse into friends’ lives. In addition, we can declare political or personal messages, and spark social change conveniently and innovatively. It is no wonder that adolescents dutifully adhere to their social media accounts.

There are over 3 billion social media users in the world, on the way to reaching half of the world’s population. We access social media through our electronic devices that now function as necessities, and this exposure to social media persists and grows. Social media is the modern way of communicating, and there is no immediate way to change that. Growing up in the modern world, adolescents seem chained to social media. This subjection to a mere electronic device now seems normal and undoubtedly causes harm to users. Should this really be normal?

An Assault on Mental Health

The impacts of social media on adolescents’ mental health have evolved into a widespread problem. There have been numerous studies showing a link between social media and depression and anxiety. One study found that people who use at least seven social media platforms are three times more likely to have high levels of anxiety than people who use 0-2 platforms. There are numerous factors to blame for this startling correlation.

Physical interactions are essential to relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety, and when online relationships replace physical relationships, such relief is intangible. This lack of relief ultimately contributes to the rise of depression and anxiety. Taking a neuroscientific perspective, likes on social media posts trigger a rush of dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved with reward. Users feel a constant desire to check the status of their posts to achieve instant dopamine gratification. However, a dearth of these likes does not induce reward when it is expected, which can lead to symptoms of depression. This continual desire for rewards ties significantly to adolescents and social media. Adolescents seek approval from their peers. Social media is a popular and accessible portal in which adolescents can obtain such sought-after approval. Each like on a post contributes to an accumulation of demonstrated approval and generated reward. When teenagers lack this degree of peer recognition that they so badly desire, they are left with feelings of sadness and loneliness—what ultimately leads to depression and anxiety.

The presence of stress in adolescents is a given. Schoolwork is a primary contributor, but social pressures and environments are as well. FOMO—the fear of missing out—is a dominant facet in social media stress, and it haunts the minds of adolescents. They often fear that they are missing out whenever they log off their devices, and consequently, a frenzy of persistent anxiety and stress invades the mind. Stress attacks mental health relentlessly, causing a downfall in overall health. Some may argue, however, that they do not feel stressed by social media. In fact, a Pew poll suggests that most people think that social media has no stressful effects on them. Despite these results, this poll consists solely of self-reported evaluations. Many people are indeed stressed and often oblivious to it. Self-reported data are not of utmost reliability in this case. Social media stress, however, does cause addiction and mental health inference in adolescence, affirming social media’s attack on wellbeing.

An Assault on Emotional Health

Adolescents often open social media apps to jealousy. They may find peers sunbathing on golden, hot sand, celebrities flamboyantly posing on a red carpet, or influencers elaborating on their glamorous lifestyle. Users display their most brilliant life to their followers—exaggerating the social ideals and suppressing the imperfections. This is what Stanford University researchers named “duck syndrome.” The visual is of an elegant duck gliding across the water while its flailing feet beneath are concealed. People often feel envious of others’ attractive lives, and this envy leads to a sharp decline in self-esteem. There is an increased pressure to achieve a standard set by others’ masked ideal lives. Low self-esteem has numerous ramifications for adolescents’ emotional health. One may feel uncomfortable with his or her own self, or one may try to forcefully change oneself to create an ideal self. Low self-esteem almost always leads to decreased happiness. Such a deterioration of happiness ultimately entails the collapse of the adolescent emotional infrastructure.

The emotional health detriments of social media correlate with those of mental health. The overall decline of self-esteem and happiness as well as the envy-driven pressure, mental health suffers a severe blow. Emotional health impacts have directly caused mental health problems, and many believe that social media contributes greatly to rising suicide rates and depression rates.

An Assault on Physical Health

Social media has taken a significant toll on sleep. It is not only because of social media; rather, the omnipresence of technology in our lives is a prime culprit for sleep dysfunction. Exposure to blue light and artificial lighting decreases melatonin production, which is the hormone that regulates sleep. Consequently, natural sleep cycles are disrupted. In a study involving 12,000 teenagers, those who spent more than five hours a day on social media—a startling 20.8% of participants—were 70% more likely to fall asleep late on school nights and after midnight on other nights than those who spent one to three hours on social media—about 31.6% of participants. Sleep is critically minimized in adolescents who spend much of their time online. This minimized sleep can stress relationships, reduce alertness, impair memory, harm daytime functioning, and increase the risk for future health problems. Social media is carving out a substantial portion of teenagers’ valued sleep. This deprivation carries heavy consequences that are not worth a couple of extra dispensable hours in front of the screen. It does not matter whether a user is occupying the role of an activist on Instagram or impulsively checking his or her Facebook feed. Overwhelming usage is still unhealthy, excessive, and wrong, even if one is using social media for a noble cause.

Social media discomposes standard biological behavior in adolescents, creeping into the essential facets of wellbeing. Social media has dethroned the outdoor exercise, reading, sleep, board games, and family time that once reigned over the occupation of young people’s time. Now, blue light floods and batters the strained adolescent eye as developing bodies continually wear down.

Reconciliation of Health and Social Impact

Social media—Summer, 2020. Amid the powerful Black Lives Matter movement, one can find streams of activism in the form of education, reposts, calls for reform, and political statements on social media platforms. Such widespread activism has spread awareness of Black Lives Matter, and it has sparked significant amendments to perspectives of American racism.

Social media has undoubtedly improved our lives and generated a positive impact on social movements. However, the health concerns that it has produced cry for a substantial change in adolescent social media use. To solve this issue, we can limit social media usage and screen time.

Some may argue that although limiting usage would reduce negative health impacts, activism would not be as powerful, and social change would not be as easily inspired. Cutting down social media use, however, does not obstruct us from generating social impact. By simply being aware of screen time and deliberately restricting it, we can still be on social media to produce impact. We simply will not have the time to closely observe other people’s lives and scroll through our endless feeds. Furthermore, social media is not the only platform for social impact. By signing petitions, calling departments or legislative offices, writing letters to the editors, or starting activism projects, one can feasibly and effectively spark change. Reducing social media usage helps hinder blue light—that wretched poison—from reaching the depths of our minds and bodies. But the poison will never seem to stop seeping into our eyes unless we act with self-control and awareness.