New report reveals how teen girls feel about social media


  • Teen girls are more likely to say that their lives would be “worse,” rather than “better,” without social media.
  • Educating youth on how to use technology safely is an overlooked solution.
  • Social media platforms should be made safer for all teens, especially for the most vulnerable ones.

The impact of social media on the well-being of teens is a hotly debated topic, and rightly so. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly three in five U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021—double that of boys, representing a nearly 60 percent increase and the highest level reported over the past decade.

Social media is usually blamed for this problem, even though research indicates that it has both positive and negative effects on adolescent well-being (and, in some studies, no impact). Additionally, the impact of social media depends largely upon the teen in question. Immediate action is being taken to protect some kids from its harm. In Utah, for example, a new law will require minors to obtain the consent of a guardian to use social media platforms.

Whatever you believe about social media’s impact on mental health, those colorful little icons on your phone won’t be vanishing any time soon. Plus, stealthy kids will always find a way to log on to them whether they are “allowed” to or not. These kids need protection, too; sometimes they are the ones who need it the most.

Teen voices are rarely heard, or listened to, in this debate about their well-being and social media, even though they are the ones our decisions will impact the most.

New Common Sense Media Report Listens to Teen Girls

A report just released by the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media— “Teens and Mental Health: How Girls Really Feel About Social Media”—asks teen girls themselves how they feel about social media. The study focuses on five popular platforms: YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and messaging apps. Unsurprisingly, the girls surveyed use social media a lot, and, as adults worry that it is harming them, that’s not what they think:

Girls are more likely to say that their lives would be ‘worse,’ rather than ‘better,’ without social media, and they cite frequent positive experiences, ranging from identity affirmation to social connection and access to helpful mental health resources and information

But their experiences with social media, positive and negative, are mixed. Here are some examples:

  • The impact of social media on teen girls (either positive or negative) is related to their level of depressionNearly four in 10 girls (38 percent) surveyed reported having symptoms of depression. Those with the highest levels of depression (moderate to severe) “were more likely than girls without depressive symptoms to say that YouTube (10 percent vs. 4 percent), Instagram (26 percent vs. 17 percent), and messaging apps (19 percent vs. 8 percent) have had a mostly negative impact on people their age.” This group was also “more likely to say that their lives would be ‘better’ without each social media platform.” On the other hand, girls with mild depressive symptoms were “more likely to say their lives would be worse without YouTube (53 percent vs. 38 percent), TikTok (41 percent vs. 33 percent), Snapchat (38 percent vs. 26 percent), and messaging apps (52 percent vs. 42 percent).” Interestingly, the social media app typically considered to have a negative impact on mental health (Instagram) is not on this list.
  • Teens of color encounter both positive and negative experiences. According to the report, a “majority of adolescent girls of color reported coming across positive or identity-affirming content related to race across platforms.” At the same time, approximately “two-thirds of girls of color who use TikTok (66 percent) and Instagram (64 percent) report having ever come across racist content on these platforms, with one in five saying they come across it daily or more.”
  • LGBTQ+ teens also encounter positive and negative experiences online. Hate speech related to sexual and gender identity is frequently experienced by LGBTQ+ girls who use social media, according to the report. However, this same population is also “more likely than their non-LGBTQ+ peers to say that they frequently connect with others who share their interests or identities.”
  • Mental health information is both harmful and helpful. The report finds that “four in 10 girls who use Instagram (41 percent) and TikTok (39 percent) report coming across harmful suicide-related content at least monthly on these platforms.” Paradoxically, “the majority of girls report regularly coming across helpful mental health information and resources…with more than half of users of TikTok (60 percent), Instagram (56 percent), Snapchat (52 percent), and YouTube (55 percent) saying they see this content at least monthly.” Additionally, girls “with depressive symptoms were more likely to come across both harmful suicide-related content and helpful mental health content, compared to girls with no depressive symptoms.” (This is possibly due to algorithms that detect their interest in the topic.)

The report also pinpoints what girls find “challenging.” For example, they say they feel “addicted” to TikTok, and say they are “more likely to report unwanted contact by strangers on Instagram and Snapchat.” They also share opinions on design features indicating, for example, that “location sharing” and “public accounts” are features they find “mostly negative.”

So, What’s the Verdict? Is Social Media Good or Bad for the Mental Health of Teen Girls?

The big takeaway from this report and the answer to this question are, yes. It’s both. For every girl that social media helps, there’s a girl it harms. Every positive social media experience seems to be counterbalanced by a negative one. And, often, the same girl experiences both.

But the fact remains that social media is not going away any time soon. And even if we can keep teens from using it today (good luck), they will likely use it eventually, either for pleasure or for work (probably both). But one girl harmed is one too many. Clearly, we have to do something to make social media safer for all of them, especially for the most vulnerable.

The most logical path forward is for social media companies to implement the changes and safeguards that many have been calling for. But that path generally requires legislative action, and that takes time.

A faster approach is a rarely discussed one—education. We should be teaching youth how to avoid many of the challenges this report shows they are clearly aware of. They should know how to manage their privacy, block unwanted contacts, filter objectionable content, outsmart algorithms, and use the safety settings many social media apps already offer. Teens empowered with this knowledge will be able to make their own online experiences safer as they wait for us to catch up. Just ask them.

reference: psychology today