Social Media and Teen Mental Health: A Complex Mix

March 19, 2024


There is strong evidence to suggest that teenagers in the United States are collectively in the midst of a mental health crisis, as rates of both depression and suicide have climbed in recent years. Could the popularity of social media among young people be to blame?

Melissa DuPont-Reyes, PhD, MPH is an Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences and Epidemiology

Melissa DuPont-Reyes, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences and epidemiology, says the answer may not be as simple as you think. She is leading a new study that takes a holistic perspective, broadening the focus from how the use of TikTok, Instagram, and other social media platforms can harm mental health to include an understanding of how they can be protective, too.

The National Institutes of Mental Health-funded longitudinal study is focused on Latinx adolescents, who use social media more than all other racial/ethnic or age groups, nationally. Beyond a simple measure of the frequency of social media use, Dupont-Reyes and colleagues will drill down into the diverse content young people encounter, including Spanish-language, Latinx-tailored, and English-language posts on a variety of platforms.

The study will collect data on both protective aspects like anti-stigma awareness campaigns and symptom support, as well as negative effects such as stigmatizing content, hate speech, and cyber-bullying. Researchers will examine how these exposures drive youths’ self-perception, help-seeking, and mental health outcomes, as well as the mediating role played by peers and family members.

To accomplish her study objective, in part, Dupont-Reyes will utilize validated, culturally appropriate survey assessments she developed as part of a project funded through a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Pioneering Ideas Award. As part of the new study, young people will have the chance to research the question and have a say in how to address it through a process called Youth Participatory Action Research.

When it comes to social media’s effects on an adolescent mental health, Dupont-Reyes hypothesizes that context matters quite a lot. Her preliminary work has shown that for some youth, social media can be a lifeline. For instance, youth who are unaccompanied minors migrating, are LGBTQI+ in nontolerant settings, have a disability such as a speech impediment or even mental illness, or have experienced police brutality, all report that social media can be empowering as a tool to make their voices heard while also lending support and resources.

“I hope that my project demonstrates a more diverse portrait of adolescents in the U.S., and globally, as well as the social media that they encounter, and specifies the contexts in which social media can be beneficial to mental health and the contexts in which it might be harmful,” she says.

DuPont-Reyes says the evidence generated from the project could inform policies that are more equitable, accountable, and transparent—ultimately to create a safer technological landscape for diverse populations to promote mental health on a population level. At the same time, its findings can reach parents, teachers, the tech industry, health care providers, and others with its message that vilifying social media is not the answer.

“I hope my research can inform a more holistic and equitable approach to creating a safer social media environment for youth that doesn’t solely require restricting technology,” she says.