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Social Media and Glorification of Substance Use Online Threatens Youth Mental Health

Updated: Feb 6



Social Media

Since the rise of the digital age over the last two decades, social media has become a huge part of modern life. Platforms like X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram play a massive role in shaping society and culture, but younger generations also help dictate what is popular in the mainstream. With the prevalence of these social networking platforms, millions of children and adolescents have become active on social media. 


But with endless content, targeted ads, and personalized algorithms, social media can be a dangerous and explicit place for children and teens. Adolescents who use social media are significantly more likely to buy tobacco products, consume alcohol, and use drugs than youth who do not use social media. Excessive and unmonitored social media is associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression in children and teens. 


The Statistics on Social Media Usage


Compared to teens who use social media either infrequently or not at all, adolescents who use social media are five times more likely to buy cigarettes, three times more likely to drink, and twice times as likely to use marijuana. On that note, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University estimates that 70% of teens use social media. Of that 70%, the majority believe social media to be a positive part of their lives. 


Among teens on social media, Instagram reigns supreme. Over a quarter of teens say Instagram is their favorite social media platform, and across the globe, nearly four billion people actively use social media. Over 90% of adolescents on social media check their networking profiles more than once a day. With this widespread habit among such a large demographic, you might wonder how social media might be affecting teens and other young people. 


Negative Effects of Social Media Use


All things are good in moderation, and the adage applies to social media as well. Frequent and excessive social media use can affect children's and teens’ mental health in a myriad of ways. Studies have linked social media use with irregular sleeping patterns, disordered eating, feelings of isolation, and an overall dissatisfaction with one’s life. 


Generally, teens who use social media are at a significantly higher risk of developing mental health conditions like depression and anxiety compared to those who do not. More than 25% of children and teens who spend more than three hours a day on social media exhibit signs of mental illness of some sort. 


FOMO and Social Comparison


Other negative effects brought on by spending too much time online may include social comparison and the fear of missing out, or FOMO. For many young people, scrolling online and seeing their friends out having a good time–whether that be partying, drinking, or other activities–can lead to feelings of loneliness and exclusion. 


On the other hand, some teens may struggle with their confidence as a result of comparing their lives to those of their peers on social media. When a young person is feeling lonely or struggling with their self-esteem, they may retreat to social media. In these situations, repeated or compulsive use of social media and comparing oneself to others only further exacerbates their emotional and emotional struggles.


Influencing Substance Use


Teens who are struggling mentally and emotionally may also be influenced to use substances after seeing others using them on social media. A teen may see a post of one of their friends smoking something or an Instagram ad from an alcohol brand and wonder if a drink or a cigarette will offer an escape from their emotions. 


The danger of social media in this context lies in the fact that tobacco and alcohol industries are legally prohibited from marketing to youth. Despite this, ads for alcohol and tobacco brands proliferate on social media, and as much as 30% of teen drinking and smoking can be attributed to the impact of such marketing online. 


Final Thoughts on How Social Media Use Affects Adolescents


Social media can be endlessly entertaining, and even a bit addictive for children and teens: today more than two-thirds of adolescents are active on social media. However, overexposure to social networking sites can pose a host of mental, emotional, and social obstacles for a teen. 


Research has shown links between frequent social media use and symptoms of mental illnesses like anxiety or depression. Despite how social media can affect adolescents’ mental health without their realizing it, young people often use platforms like Instagram and Snapchat as an escape when they are dealing with something mentally or emotionally. 


Teens need to understand how social media can be both a positive and harmful part of their lives. For some, it can make them feel isolated or lonely, and for others, social media can influence them to partake in risky behaviors such as substance abuse. In other cases, more comprehensive forms of support, such as therapy or rehab, may be necessary.

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