Does Social Media Cause Teen Anxiety?

Social media is the fastest gateway to communication. It’s available at the palm of your hand, whenever, wherever. Although the convenience of social media can be beneficial, there may be one major drawback, especially among teens: Anxiety.

According to Ken Miller, PhD, clinical director of Harbor Youth and Family Services, anxiety is an excessive emotional response in anticipation of a future threat. “It’s involved with fear. It is a persistent chronic nervousness of something you aren’t in control of,” Miller explains.

Fear of Missing Out

Many social media users have anxiety due to a fear of missing out (FOMO). Dr. Miller explains, “They have a great interest and curiosity of who is doing what. They want to know and be current with what is happening in their social circles. If they feel out of the loop they can become hypersensitive and think ‘I’m not okay’ or ‘I’m not popular.’ In order to be on top of their game they have to be involved. This is especially true for teens. If they feel they are missing out they may develop anxiety, stress or sleep disorders. Social media is an addiction that feeds off of FOMO.”

Joining the 100 Club

The “100 club is having 100 likes” says Dr. Miller. “Teen users tend to judge themselves and be critical when they are not in the 100 club. They want all this validation and attention and if they don’t get it their perfectionism kicks in. They think ‘I should be popular.’ They’re forming an identity and it’s crucial for them to get positive attention. For every negative stroke (unit of feeling) a kid receives, it takes four positive strokes just to compensate for the negative strokes. This is why kids are feeling put down and insecure. The tipping point is where the anxiety kicks in. They think ‘others are better than me’ or ‘I’m not doing as well as others.’ It is a spiral of judgment. They are bullied or put down in some cases.”

“Some people run the risk of feeling anxious when they associate clicks, likes, messages and other interactions with affirmation that they are worthwhile individuals,” says Katie Warchol, social media specialist at ProMedica. “The self-esteem we form as young people and work to maintain in adulthood is suddenly put to the test online. Our thoughts, jokes, selfies, and vacation photos are on display for all to judge, so when something doesn’t get the reaction we wanted, it can be discouraging.”

Warchol urges social media users to remember that everyone is a unique individual. “It’s okay if no one liked the thing you posted. You clearly liked it enough to post it, and that makes it worthwhile.”

When To Seek Help

Dr. Miller recommends seeing a doctor if social media anxiety is impairing a teenager’s ability to go to school, work or have healthy relationships. “If they worry they aren’t okay or that they aren’t measuring up, if they are impaired in school, work, or job and are not doing real things with real people, then they should seek treatment.”

Treatment options for anxiety include “pills and skills,” according to Dr. Miller.  “However, most cases should be handled through skills, not pills. There is a variety of skills that can help kids deal with anxiety if they feel they are overwhelmed: Relaxation therapy, biofeedback, guided imagery, yoga, jogging, lifting weights, mindfulness meditation, or any other positive addiction.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is an evidenced-based approach that teaches effective, rational, emotive skills, explains Dr. Miller. This therapy helps the way teens and parents see the world. They increase their anxiety, anger or depression by irrational cognitions and this therapy changes their belief system. Skills allow people to get out of their head and get back into reality, to experience something other than the artificial realties of Twitter or Facebook.

Dr. Miller continues, “Through education, understanding, and in other cases, therapy, children and parents can cope and have hope with this problem. They don’t have to be stuck in their fear, depression, or anxiety. Therapy and counseling work.”