Is social media a trigger for already-struggling teens or a place where they can express themselves and seek support from their peers?
On Friday, news about the suicide of 16-year-old TikTok star Siya Kakkar ripped through the internet. The teen from New Delhi found fame on social media after posting videos of dance routines and snippets of her daily life. Her biggest following was on TikTok, but she was also active across Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube. At only 16, when most kids are still figuring out the intricacies of high school, Siya already had a thriving career as a social media influencer.
But are teens well-equipped to deal with the pressures of social media on top of everything else?
A constellation of mental health problems
It’s no secret that teenagers nowadays are more anxious and depressed than ever. Reports of mental health issues and extreme stress have been on an upward trend since the early 2010s, with parents putting much of the blame on social media and smartphones.
Other significant factors include academic pressure and unstable relationships with family and friends. Kids are missing out on sleep and a healthy social life to study well into the night for tests, then spending most of their days in classes or extracurricular activities. These, they are told, are absolutely vital if you want to get ahead in life. From as early as 11 years old, pre-teens begin to feel acutely that their every decision will weigh heavily on their futures.
That’s too much pressure for anyone, let alone a high schooler whose intellectual faculties are still a good 10 years away from being fully developed. Add to that the fact that most GenZ-ers (whose adolescence corresponds to the current social media boom) have robust online presences on multiple platforms, from TikTok, Instagram and YouTube to Twitch, which is mainly used for livestreaming.
Scrolling through some of these platforms, it’s easy to see how one could get overwhelmed. The majority of posts are specially curated to only show their young protagonists doing fun, adventurous things such as going to the beach or out shopping for items no teenager can afford on their own.
“After hours of scrolling through Instagram feeds, I just feel worse about myself because I feel left out,” says Caitlin Hearty, a high school senior from Colorado, who helped organize an offline campaign at her highschool after several of her peers took their own lives. The campaign saw hundreds of teens participate by agreeing to stay off social media for an entire month, to help with their mental health. Their main complaint about the various online platforms was that, “No one posts the bad things they’re going through,” which can feel isolating when you’re struggling.
Blaming social media
But many parents blame social media in a different way. They believe kids have access to disturbing content on these platforms, which influences — or even teaches — them to harm themselves or commit suicide.
TV director and father, Ian Russell, of Harrow, North London, believes Instagram played a important role in his 14-year-old daughter, Molly’s, suicide in 2017. He claims that Molly had seemed in a good mood at bedtime and committed suicide later that night after viewing disturbing content on Instagram.
Molly’s family found distressing material about depression and suicide on the girl’s Instagram account. Mr Russell said: ‘I have no doubt that Instagram helped kill my daughter. She had so much to offer and that’s gone.’
Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University who studies generational trends, is the author of numerous studies about the possible link between declining adolescent mental health and smartphones. Her studies have found a correlation between an increased social media presence and a steady rise in teen depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts or attempts. From 2009 to 2015, the years studied, the number of 12th-grade girls who used social media every day or nearly every day went up almost 30 percentage points — from 58% to 87%. These girls were 14% more likely to be depressed than their peers who used social media less frequently.
“We need to stop thinking of smartphones as harmless,” said Twenge. “There’s a tendency to say, ‘Oh, teens are just communicating with their friends.’ She added that parents need to monitor kids’ use of smartphones and presence on social media.
In defense of TikTok and other social media
On the other hand, researchers insist that correlation does not imply causation and that intergenerational misunderstandings are as old as time. This could be a case of parents not grasping the vital role social media plays in their kids’ lives — just like when, in the mid-2000s, it was believed video games contributed to violent and anti-social behaviour in kids.
Maybe, the devil’s advocate suggests, teens use TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat to express themselves freely and seek support from others struggling in similar ways. Maybe they’re afraid to open up to parents, teachers and counselors about the impossible pressures and expectations they feel from the adults in their lives.
So, instead they turn to makeshift support groups and improperly moderated online communities of their peers. Here, users share (sometimes disturbing) thoughts, stories, images and art they feel would attract anger or ridicule anywhere else. They want to talk to someone like them, who understands what they’re going through.
For some, these may be the only place where they can talk openly about their depression, anxiety or self-harm. It’s understandable; these are tough to experience and talk about at any age. Many who develop these issues in adolescence suffer silently for years before seeking treatment.
But parents, according to every teenager in history, just don’t understand. Or, even worse, they punish the already-struggling teen by taking away their only connection to a sympathetic community — their smartphone. Often this is motivated by genuine concern and a feeling of powerlessness over their child’s suffering — what if they’re being bullied online? What is this device doing to their in-person social skills?
Sure, teenagers can be cruel and cyber-bullying is a very real and painful thing. Where before kids could leave school for the day and escape their persecution, they now confront it whenever they log onto their devices and social media.
On the other hand, today’s teens, perhaps more than ever, are capable of serious altruism, positive action and maturity. They will often be the first to call for empathy and civil discussion in social media disputes. They are big champions of safe spaces (online and off), inclusivity and diversity of experience.
The bottom line
This all begs the question — is social media a trigger or a comfort for teens who struggle with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts?
The answer might not be so clear cut.
While it’s a bad idea to let a tablet or smartphone parent your teen, it can be an uphill battle trying to convince them to log out and do something else. For some, social media may be the only place where they feel heard and understood — for better or worse. However, the content of these platforms is almost impossible to monitor and police, as evidenced by past attempts to do that. In the end, TikTok, the company, won’t protect your teens’ online experience.
The best parents can do is, to the most of their ability, pay attention to what their teen is saying and doing. Creating an accepting environment will make it easier for kids to open up about anything might be struggling with, without fear they’ll be punished or misunderstood. Mental health issues are difficult for anyone to navigate, at any age — but especially if you’re still new to the world and to your body, still figuring out how everything works.
For anyone who’s struggling, getting the right kind of help is the first step towards feeling better. Here are some resources you could use:
The NHS’s list of Mental Health Helplines (if you’re based in the UK)
The NIMH’s list of Mental Health resources (if you’re based in the US)