Smartphones, and being on Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok and the like may be taking a big toll on teens’ mental health, a new survey of collected data on the subject shows.

Canadian researchers pored over dozens of studies and said the negative effects of social media on teens’ well-being is on the rise.

“Physicians, teachers and families need to work together with youth to decrease possible harmful effects of smartphones and social media on their relationships, sense of self, sleep, academic performance, and emotional well-being,” said study lead author Dr. Elia Abi-Jaoude. He’s a staff psychiatrist at The Hospital for Sick Children and Toronto Western Hospital, both in Toronto.

As part of their research, Abi-Jaoude and his colleagues uncovered patterns across multiple studies. For example:

  • In one U.S. study, the rate at which kids and teens arrive in hospitals due to suicidal thoughts or attempts “almost doubled between 2008 and 2015, with the highest increase among adolescent girls,” the researchers noted.
  • U.S. overdose rates for young people ages 10 to 18, which has previously been on the decline, “increased substantially from 2011 to 2018, primarily among girls,” another study found.
  • At the same time “the proportion of [U.S.] young people who between the ages of 13 and 17 years who have a smartphone has reached 89%, more than doubling over a 6-year period,” the data review said. At the same time, “70% of teenagers use social media multiple times per day, up from a third of teens in 2012.”

Of course, it’s tough to tell whether this rise in social media and smartphone use is actually causing an increase in rates of mental health issue among teens.

However, other data seems to suggest it might be.

For example, the Canadian researchers pointed to two studies — one conducted in the United States, the other in Germany — which found that kids who spent more time on Facebook were more prone to negative states such as envy and insecurity about their status, compared to others in their online network. Much of this was centered around “FOMO” — fear of missing out, those studies showed.

Another “systematic review of 20 studies found that use of social media was associated with body image concerns and disordered eating,” the research team reported. In one study, “female participants reported more negative mood after just 10 minutes of browsing their Facebook account,” Abi-Jaoude’s group said.

Social media “addiction” is also an emerging problem, and “several cross-sectional studies have shown that high proportions of youth appear to be addicted to their smartphones,” the Canadian researchers said. Seven other studies suggest that this kind of heavy reliance on smartphones is tied to a higher risk for suicidal thoughts or self-harm in school-age kids and teens, they added.

Numerous studies have also found that as hours per day increase on smartphones, laptops and other “screens,” rates of happiness, life satisfaction and self-esteem fall. Excessive screen time also seems to be eroding teens’ ability to get good sleep, which might also have negative mental health effects, according to the researchers.

The findings were published Feb. 10 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Abi-Jaoude’s team stressed that an all-out ban on kids’ smartphone use probably won’t help. And in some respects the internet might even be of some benefit to teens seeking information on mental health.

“For adolescents today, who have not known a world without social media, digital interactions are the norm, and [there are] potential benefits of online access to productive mental health information,” Abi-Jaoude said in a journal news release. Those benefits include “media literacy, creativity, self-expression, sense of belonging and civic engagement — as well as low barriers to resources such as crisis lines and internet-based talking therapies,” he said.

However, excessive internet use may pose hazards. Therefore, the researchers suggest doctors should advise teens to reduce their social media use rather than stop it completely, and should encourage parents to be part of such conversations. Parents should talk with teens about appropriate smartphone use and work with them to reduce risks and set boundaries. They should also set a good example for smartphone use. Schools should develop appropriate smartphone use policies.

Many teens might agree: One recent poll found that 54% of U.S. teens think they spend too much time on their smartphones and about half said they’re cutting back on usage.

“Encouragingly, youth are increasingly recognizing the negative impact of social media on their lives and starting to take steps to mitigate it,” the authors wrote.

Two experts unconnected to the new study agreed that social media is having an impact on teens’ mental health.

“Any pediatrician who has practiced for 20 years or more knows that primary care has changed almost beyond recognition, with an ever greater number of patients coming to the office with anxiety or depression,” said Dr. Michael Grosso. He’s chair of pediatrics at Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital in Huntington, N.Y.

“Counseling and psychiatric resources in many locales have been overwhelmed by the need,” Grosso said. “General pediatricians are called on more and more to try to fill these gaps themselves. What is going on?”

Grosso stressed that the rise in mental health woes probably doesn’t have just one cause. But social media may be part of the problem.

“The authors’ recommendations — to use a strong therapeutic relationship to coach our patients on cutting back their time on Facebook and other messaging applications — seems very sensible,” Grosso said. “They also suggest, very wisely, that parents not prescribe this kind of abstinence until they take that particular prescription themselves.”

Dr. Victor Fornari is vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y. He agreed that “youth today have not known a world without social media, and their lives are intensely related with their smartphones. Social media has been shown to be related to an increase in suicidality and self-harm in adolescents.”

According to Fornari, “Physicians need to counsel parents to monitor and limit smartphone use, especially on social media.”

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on teen mental health.