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Rutgers expert details mental health consequences of social media on teenagers during pandemic

With fewer opportunities for social activities during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, more teenagers have turned to social media as a source of validation, to the detriment of their mental health. – Photo by

Excessive use of social media platforms has been shown to have negative impacts on teenagers, and the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has exacerbated these effects, said Muhammad Zeshan, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

Several studies have demonstrated the consequences of social media usage on mental health, including the normalization and even promotion of self-harm among youth, Zeshan said. In addition, studies have shown poor sleep quality, higher levels of depression and anxiety, eating disorders, concerns with body image and negative self-views to be associated with social comparison via various platforms, he said.

While using social media appropriately can boost self-esteem and feelings of connection among teenagers, unhealthy online habits can have the opposite effect, Zeshan said. Specifically, teenagers who spend more than three hours per day on social media platforms are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and fear of missing out on social activities.

“Excessive and unhealthy online habits may lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, less satisfaction with their lives, unrealistic expectation about self and the world around them, social isolation from friends and families, recurrent anger outbursts and limited social-emotional development (due to) less frequent face-to-face interactions,” Zeshan said.

He said teenagers’ enjoyment of fun exciting activities boosts their dopamine levels, but the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed fewer opportunities for teenagers to do such activities as shopping, seeing friends, going on vacation and partying. Instead, he said, teenagers turned to social media as their main source of pleasure and validation through posting, gaining followers and getting good comments.

Zeshan said platforms like Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, ASKfm and Omegle have become more popular among teenage users during the pandemic as “narrowcasting” applications as opposed to broadcasting apps such as Facebook, to attract a smaller audience while remaining under parents’ radars.

“Teens are using (a) lot of different apps to share selfies, posts, secret messages depending on what they want to say, and to whom, and if they want to stay anonymous,” he said. 

In regard to how parents and other caregivers should address the impacts of social media on teenagers, Zeshan said he would encourage partaking in offline activities such as hiking, inviting friends over or volunteering in one’s community. 

In addition, he said it is important to set boundaries about social media time and ensure that kids are not sharing private information on the internet.

“Formulate (a) family media plan which includes giving some ownership to teenagers about use of social media as long as they are having adequate sleep, eating meals on time, (having) some family time, (completing) their homework,” Zeshan said. “Follow your child's social media accounts with an agreement about not posting or responding to their posts. (Turn) on the privacy settings to limit access to personal information.”

He said teenagers enjoy novelty and taking risks, as they are experiencing the identity versus role confusion stage of psychosocial development. As teenagers focus on developing a sense of self, parents can help them fit in with their friends while discouraging risky behaviors, cyberbullying and cruel comments.

“Talk with your teenagers about their feelings when they see any bad comments, or their friends’ feeds, or how many followers their friends have, or when they start feeling bad about their own lives and feel that their friends are having so much fun and they are missing out on so many great opportunities (or) activities,” Zeshan said. “Reassure them that you will be there for them, no matter how bad they feel about anything they have done wrong.”

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