Online Connections: Middle School Mental Health and the Effects of Social Media

It can be surprisingly easy for some to dismiss middle school-aged students as too young to experience problems with their mental health.  In past generations, struggling students were often dismissed as going through a temporary “phase” or being “moody”.  In 2011, middle school students are growing up faster than ever and more attention is being paid to the mental-health risks faced by some youth who use Facebook and other social media websites.

Compared to previous decades, tweens are now exposed to more of the world and at a faster rate, through the internet, social media, and smart phones.  In the last five years, the number of tweens and adolescents using such sites has increased dramatically. According to a recent poll, 22 percent of teenagers log on to their favorite social media site more than 10 times a day, and more than half of adolescents log on to a social media site more than once a day.  Seventy-five percent of teenagers own cell phones--25 percent use them for social media, 54 percent use them for texting, and 24 percent use them for instant messaging.  Social media has radically changed the childhood experience for many tweens, and the effects can be both positive and negative.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, social media sites can help develop a child’s communication, social interaction, sense of community and technical skills.  Facebook allows users to see their friends' successes, as well as the number of friendships those friends have.  Events or feelings that were once private experiences are now public.  In some children, these types of encounters and online popularity contests can lead to low self esteem, peer pressure and can cause or worsen anxiety or depression.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also notes that online harassment or cyberbullying “can cause profound psychosocial outcomes including depression, anxiety, severe isolation, and, tragically, suicide.”

About 2.5 percent of children in the U.S. suffer from depression and according to the National Comorbidity Survey-Adolescent Supplement, about 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18.  

Six percent of all deaths in the pre-teen age range are the result of suicide.  Children with a family history of violence, alcohol abuse, or physical or sexual abuse are at greater risk for suicide, as are those with depressive symptoms.

Fortunately, with early diagnosis, medication, psychotherapy, or combined treatment, most youth with depression can be effectively treated.  Parents, teachers, and school counselors can also help middle school students navigate appropriate social media use and generate awareness of the potential mental health effects.

Students spend at least one-quarter of their waking hours in schools, most of it in classrooms.  Teachers and school counselors are in a unique position to recognize the signs of depression and behavioral changes in their students.  Screening for Mental Health’s youth prevention programs provide practical risk management tools and information to assess, prevent and respond to signs of suicide and non-suicidal self-injury. Learn more about the SOS Signs of Suicide Middle School Program.

Sources:

The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families [Pediatrics]

Common Sense Media.  Is Technology Networking Changing Childhood? A National Poll. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media; 2009. Available at: http://www.commonsensemedia.org/teen-social-media.

Hinduja S, Patchin J.  Offline consequences of online victimization: school violence and delinquency.  J Sch Violence.  2007;6(3): 89 –112

© 2010 Screening for Mental Health, Inc.