Teens tell their truth about social media and mental health. 'I always have my phone.'

·13 min read

Before she gets out of bed in the morning, Ani Brooks, 17, reaches for her iPhone.

“I wake up and my phone is literally next to my pillow where I sleep,” Brooks said. “The first thing I do is check that. If any of my friends have texted me while I was asleep, I’ll respond to that. I’ll go on TikTok and will sit there just scrolling through. I always have my phone with me, all the time.”

Ani Brooks is a rising senior at Dover High School. She’s the editor of the school paper, takes mostly honors courses and works as a hostess at a popular Italian restaurant on Dover Point.

Editor's note: This is the third story in a year-long mental health series in a partnership between Seacoast Media Group, The Union Leader and Dartmouth Health.

After three students in the class ahead of her died by suicide, she became involved in peer-to-peer counseling and is a member of the school’s mental health initiative. She is one of seven rising seniors creating a conference for administrators and students in schools to talk about mental health, including the impact of social media.

While Brooks is fully aware of the influence of social media and ubiquitous mobile devices on youth mental health, she’s not immune to it.

“Every teenager you talk to will admit that how much they use their phone is a problem, but they don’t want to do anything to fix it,” Brooks said. “It’s just such a strong addiction that people have normalized that they’re going to be like, ‘No, I’m fine.’ The anxiety of not being with your phone is worse than realizing that there’s a problem and that you really need time away from it.”

Ani Brooks, a rising senior at Dover High School, said of her phone: “I have everything on there. It’s how I connect to everything,”
Ani Brooks, a rising senior at Dover High School, said of her phone: “I have everything on there. It’s how I connect to everything,”

Grace Halepis, 17, a rising senior at Exeter High School, is an honors student and deeply involved in her school, community and social causes like supporting Planned Parenthood. While she feels she has her social media use under control, she too feels its pull on her time and attention.

“My phone is really important for just practical purposes and social media is something that everyone at my age is on, so I feel like if you’re not on it, you’ll be left out of certain things,” Halepis said.

Both young women point to the many positives of social media. Brooks has been able to stay in touch with friends who have gone off to college and Halepis is able to do activist work on behalf of the causes she’s most passionate about. But both teens don’t hesitate to describe social media’s negative impacts on them, particularly the photoshopped expectations of what they are supposed to look like and how they are supposed to act.

“For girls, more specifically, there can be a lot of body dysmorphia coming from seeing pictures of models, creating unrealistic expectations for yourself,” Brooks said. “If you fall short of those expectations, you can go into a depression because of it, so eating disorders can also come from looking at those images and just a lot of generalized anxiety about the way you present yourself in society. It puts a lot of pressure on the way you appear every single day.”

Halepis agrees.

"It definitely has heightened my insecurities about my body and about how much I’m doing or not doing,” Halepis said. “At times it has influenced my feelings of self-worth. I bet I’m speaking for most of the teenage community when I say that.”

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Grace Halepis speaks about the impact of social media on youth mental health at the Exeter Library on Monday, July 18, 2022.
Grace Halepis speaks about the impact of social media on youth mental health at the Exeter Library on Monday, July 18, 2022.

Both young women describe the hurt of seeing their friends doing things on Snapchat and they were left out.

Brooks, Halepis and their peers have been described by social psychologists as canaries in the coal mine when it comes to unfettered access to social media on ever-present mobile technologies.

Jean M. Twenge, an author and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, describes them as “iGen,” the first generation whose social life has been dominated by digital communications.

“Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet,” Twenge wrote in The Atlantic. “iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced in 2007 and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene in 2010.”

Brooks was born in 2004, Halepis in 2005.

In his 2021 advisory on youth mental health, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy sounded the alarm.

“Too often, young people are bombarded with messages through the media and popular culture that erode their sense of self-worth — telling them they are not good looking enough, popular enough, smart enough or rich enough,” Murthy wrote. “When not deployed responsibly and safely, these tools can pit us against each other, reinforce negative behaviors like bullying and exclusion, and undermine the safe and supportive environments young people need and deserve.”

President Joe Biden referenced the influence of social media on teen mental health in his State of the Union address in 2022.

‘We must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit,” Biden said.

“Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011,” Twenge wrote. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

If Twenge is apocalyptic in her warnings, Dr. Steven Schlozman, a child psychiatrist with Dartmouth Health and the Geisel School of Medicine, is more sanguine. Of social media he says: “I think the two biggest mistakes we can make is to either overly demonize it or to overly accept it as just another thing that we have to learn to roll with.”

While Schlozman acknowledges social media can have a negative influence, he has seen benefits for his patients on the autism spectrum, who have found it easier to communicate across the internet via social media than they do in person. And he has seen teens who cry out online in distress receive comfort and support from friends and family who might otherwise not have known they were in crisis.

“We have to figure out how to manage negative social media so that we don’t lose the positive,” Schlozman said.

Online bullying

Cyberbullying is a distinctly negative social media phenomenon.

The online bullying against one Dover middle schooler got so intense her mother on July 8 took to the social media platform Next Door with a cry from the heart.

“The extreme bullying of children here is so sad,” the mother wrote. “I can’t believe my child has gotten over a 150 different social media txt telling her to kill herself in the last two weeks, what is wrong with kids and their upbringing, YES I FILED POLICE REPORTS, however, this is not normal.”

The post received a massive response, with more than 216 comments, many sharing their own children’s experiences with bullying both in person and online.

In an interview, the mother, who is not being identified to protect her daughter, said she had hoped the bullying would end when school let out in June, but it has not.

While not speaking specifically about this case, Dover police Lt. Mark Nadeau said the department “did recently receive a complaint about internet bullying.”

He said the department does receive occasional cyberbullying complaints and that police and the schools work quickly to resolve them, working with parents and children to stop the behavior. He said serious cases could be brought to the county attorney to determine if they violate state harassment or threatening laws.

“What people do on the internet is the same as what they do in real life and there can be ramifications for it,” Nadeau said.

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In the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 15.7% of high school students said they had been cyberbullied in the 12 months prior to the survey.

While bullying has always been bad for youth mental health, cyberbullying takes the damage to a new level, said Jodie Lubarsky,  vice president of clinical operations for youth and family services at Seacoast Mental Health Center. 

“I’Il go home and pick up my device, and you might be sending me messages 24/7 through social media platforms, through texting,” Lubarsky said. “Being bullied is never healthy for a young person. When it’s in such a pervasive and invasive way, now they can’t escape it. When they pick up their device, they see and hear it.”

'We were born into this’

Suzanne Weete, a co-founder of the Dover Mental Health Alliance, recalls a conversation with her son regarding the role of social media in his life.

“My son said to me years ago, he’s 20 now, when I was upset about all the time he was spending on the phone, he said, ‘Mom, this is our world. We were born into this. It’s all that we know.'”

Ani Brooks, the rising senior at Dover High School, said of her phone: “I have everything on there.”

“It’s how I connect to everything,” Brooks said. All her social media and other apps, texts, phone, music, Apple Pay, Venmo, grades, calendar and so much more are on her mobile phone. “It’s almost a part of you. You would never expect someone to show up at your house without their phone.”

Brooks’ screen reports say she spends roughly seven hours a day on her phone. This is below the 7.5 hour daily average for her age group, according to “The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens in 2019.”

Halepis is far below the average screen time at 2.5 hours a day. One reason for that, she said, is after studying how social media works to capture teenagers’ attention in her AP English class, she turned off her push notifications for Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok.

“After I turned off the notifications I felt so much better,” Halepis said. “I feel like I have a much better grasp on how much I’m taking in.”

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Dartmouth’s Dr. Schlozman says when he sees tweens and teens struggling with social media, he always recommends shutting off some notifications.

“I can’t make you do it,” Schlozman said. “I can’t be there with you. But if you shut off just two or three of the push notifications, just try it for a couple of weeks, you’ll feel better. It’s one thing to actively look for something, it’s another for it to just show up without you even asking for it to show up.”

Parents are part of the problem

If teenagers, parents, educators and therapists all recognize that being connected 24/7 via social media is causing mental health problems, the question becomes, why aren’t we doing more to address it?

“The research is really clear that the earlier you give a child a smartphone the more difficulties are going to develop,” said Lynn Lyons, a Concord-based psychotherapist.
“The research is really clear that the earlier you give a child a smartphone the more difficulties are going to develop,” said Lynn Lyons, a Concord-based psychotherapist.

“I think the acceptance that this is just how it is, is pretty dangerous,” said Lynn Lyons, a Concord, New Hampshire based psychotherapist, speaker and author. “We can’t say, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a crisis with our kids’ mental health and that being on devices and social media draws a straight line to an increase in anxiety and depression and then say, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do about it.’”

A large number of studies confirm the connection between social media and youth mental health problems and most seem to agree that the younger someone starts using social media, the more likely they are to experience negative outcomes.

Schlozman explains this is due in part to brain development. A younger brain "just fires like crazy" into fight or flight mode when confronted with an online threat whereas a more mature brain with a more developed frontal lobe "is all about dampening that down and saying, 'let's think this through.'"

By the time students reach high school, where their world will be dominated by social media, it will be much harder to instill healthy habits.

“The research is really clear that the earlier you give a child a smartphone the more difficulties are going to develop,” said Lyons, the psychotherapist. “What I see is parents being really scared of setting limits with their kids with devices and with technology in a way that they aren’t scared about setting limits with other things. For example, they would never say to an 8-year-old, if you want to have wine with dinner, I guess that’s OK. But they’ll give their 8-year-old a device that gives them access to things that are absolutely inappropriate for that age group and they’re not setting limits.”

Therapist offers guidance

Lyons said in her work as a therapist she is counseling children and their parents “every day” regarding healthy social media use.

“I want kids to have the experience of not having their phone with them and see what that’s like,” Lyons said. “I really want families to take a social media break, to do a detox. And one day is not enough.”

Many parents, however, are as hooked to their mobile devices as their children and are not modeling healthy behavior.

“You cannot model for young children being on social media and having devices in front of you all the time and then expect when they become middle schoolers or high schoolers that they’re going to be willing to give it up so easily,” Lyons said.

“If we teach them that social media is the way to connect when they're 8, 9 and 10, they’re not going to give that up when they’re 13, 14 and 15," Lyons said. "Knowing how to manage your emotions, knowing how to handle conflict are really important skills that cannot be developed on Snapchat and we as parents have to make sure that we’re feeding kids that message very consistently because right now we are swimming upstream and it’s exhausting, but it has to be done.”

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Protecting your teen

The Mayo Clinic offers the following steps you can take to encourage responsible use of social media and limit some of its negative effects.

Set reasonable limits. Talk to your teen about how to avoid letting social media interfere with his or her activities, sleep, meals or homework. Encourage a bedtime routine that avoids electronic media use, and keep cellphones and tablets out of teens' bedrooms. Set an example by following these rules yourself.

Monitor your teen's accounts. Let your teen know that you'll be regularly checking his or her social media accounts. You might aim to do so once a week or more. Make sure you follow through.

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Explain what's not OK. Discourage your teen from gossiping, spreading rumors, bullying or damaging someone's reputation — online or otherwise. Talk to your teen about what is appropriate and safe to share on social media.

Encourage face-to-face contact with friends. This is particularly important for teens vulnerable to social anxiety disorder.

Talk about social media. Talk about your own social media habits. Ask your teen how he or she is using social media and how it makes him or her feel. Remind your teen that social media is full of unrealistic images.

Look for symptoms. If you think your teen is experiencing signs or symptoms of anxiety or depression related to social media use, talk to your child's health care provider.

Read more in this series

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Phones 24/7: Teens on social media and mental health