November 25, 2020

How social media impacts a student’s social-emotional health

By: Micah Adams, Head of Content at The Social Institute

For today’s students, social media is simply being social. 

Social media extends far beyond just watching videos, sharing posts, and hitting a few like buttons while mindlessly scrolling past an endless stream of perfectly curated content.

It’s where students hang out with friends, seek out relationships, find inspiration, explore new interests, stay informed, and connect with the world at large. Days are made, and dreams are dashed, often without any advanced notice. Logging on equates to strapping into a high-speed emotional roller-coaster with unforeseen dips, loops, rolls, twists, and turns.

According to a Common Sense Media report, today’s students average about 7.5 hours per day consuming media. The average age for a child getting their first smartphone is now 10.3 years old, while nearly one in five children has a phone by age 8. Add in the fact that smartphone sales have more than quadrupled in the last decade, and it becomes painstakingly clear that technology and social media are here to stay.

Impacting the five inches between the ears

What does science say about social media’s impact on social-emotional health?

It’s complicated.

Plugging into social networks 7.5 hours per day at the height of a 24/7 infodemic carries the potential to significantly impact social-emotional health, both for better and worse.

The drawbacks are very real, as outlined in scores of research. Students are…

But while the negatives loom large, it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, far from it.

Considering the optimistic outlook

Social media helps foster genuine relationships and connect like-minded people. A Pew Research study found that nearly two-thirds of teens have made a friend online, while a whopping 83% say that social media makes them feel better connected to their friends.

Connection and socialization help wards off anxiety and depression. Nobody should discount social media’s role in cultivating connection, especially when acknowledging the stark reality that 70% of students view anxiety and depression as a “major problem” among their peers. 

It’s difficult to understate the importance of connection against the backdrop of a global pandemic. COVID-19 drastically reduced in-person gatherings and forced students to find new ways to socialize with their friends. Research shows that online interaction helps combat loneliness for otherwise social people, signaling that social media stands firm for some as a pandemic panacea.

While it’s trendy to portray social media as a social-emotional scapegoat, new research suggests that widespread concerns over device ownership, screen-time addiction, and rising stress levels might be overblown. A January 2020 report published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry examined 40 different studies addressing the link between social media use and both depression and anxiety in teens. The report found the link to be small and inconsistent

A separate study released in August following an extended period marked by soaring screen time “found little evidence of longitudinal or daily linkages” between technology use and worse mental health.

So yeah… it’s complicated.

Identifying sustainable solutions

The Social Institute’s Seven Social Standards provides a blueprint for communities to engage in productive conversations and swiftly adapt to the ever-changing social landscape. Empowering and equipping students to navigate their social world can’t just happen at school or at home. Supporting students requires a collaborative effort with families, faculty, and leadership working together to create sustainable year-round education. 

What does that look like? Check out The Social Institute’s School Playbook, which proposes a five-step solution for addressing social media’s impact on social-emotional health.

Of course, no one solution works like a magic potion. There isn’t a straightforward answer to how social media impacts social-emotional health, and it certainly can’t be solved by checking a box one time on a to-do list. Social-emotional health stands as a prerequisite for learning, and properly addressing it requires timeless and equally adaptable solutions. Today’s best answer may not be the best one tomorrow, which amplifies the need for regular ongoing discussion.


About The Social Institute

Micah Adams is the Head of Content for The Social Institute, a company focused on empowering students to navigate social media and technology positively. The Social Institute partners with schools nationwide to provide comprehensive solutions for students, faculty, and families. The Social Institute’s online, gamified social-emotional learning curriculum engages students at school while its online Parent Toolkit helps families continue the conversation at home. For more information, contact us.