Digital Detox 3: Is All Screen Time Created Equal? Social Media Edition

Digital Detox 3: Is All Screen Time Created Equal? Social Media Edition

As clinicians, we are extremely passionate about the complex world of screen media activity. In our last post, we investigated the current state of research and media related to screen time and mental health. We found that there was a lack of consistency across reports in both the media and in research. Specifically, the media’s emphasis on sensationalism led to a messy web of news articles that consistently opposed one another in the most polarizing ways. One article mentioned that “kids don’t need a digital detox” while another suggested exactly the opposite. Along similar lines, “research is also a wreck” as stated by Anthony Wagner, chair of the department of psychology at Stanford University. He explained that there is no answer to the question of “media use potentially altering our cognition and underlying neurological function or neurobiological processes” because there is such limited data.

Since little clarity was provided by both the media and scientific communities, we engaged in our own investigation in hopes of providing answers to the digital questions we are asked often by parents in sessions. Today, we continue our discussion of this multi-part series investigating various screen time platforms and their effects on socio-emotional well being.

To date, with respect to screen media, most research concerns television usage. For the purposes of this digital detox series, we will focus on the growing amount of research performed on the most innovative platforms found on interactive screens. These platforms include: (1) mobile devices used for social media, (2) gaming consoles, and (3) VR technology. Research generated on each of these platforms typically analyzes a distinct outcome measure such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and cognitive impacts. For today’s blog post, we will focus on social media’s impact on the socio-emotional wellbeing of teens and young adults.

According to a report published by Common Sense Media, social media usage among teenagers (13-17 years old) has drastically increased between 2012 - 2018. Within the US, 70 percent of teenagers use their mobile devices to check social media several times a day. This is an increase “up from 34 percent in 2012” (Molina, 2019). Considering how ubiquitous social media usage has become, it seems only natural to remain curious about the effects caused by social media’s rise in usage. Even more startling is that “16 percent of today’s teens admit to checking their social feeds nearly constantly while another 27 percent do so on an hourly basis” (Molina, 2019). Thus, teens are constantly checking for likes, comments, direct messages, follows/friends, re-tweets, and snaps. When hearing these statistics, I begin to wonder, do teens and young adults’ self-worth or well being depend upon these forms of social currency?

Research relating to social media use and socio-emotional wellbeing often looks at anxiety and depression as two distinct outcome measures. The focus on depression and anxiety is founded upon the principle that “cultural trends in the last 10 years may have had a larger effect on mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes among younger generations compared with older generations” (Twenge). Specifically, Dr. Twenge argues that American culture has grown steadily more “individualistic over the last few decades” whereby teens “favor individual freedom and less importance placed on marriage and family.” Twenge argues that this individualism for “iGen (born 1995-2012), is leading them to feel less happy, lonelier, and more depressed” (Twenge). Spending more time online and less time interacting in person has been shown as “a pattern of time use associated with compromised mental health” (Twenge). Her studies emphasize that social media usage thereby affects younger generations’ socio-emotional well being, in comparison to “older generations.” Evidence supporting Twenge’s study is extensive. Simply search the key terms ‘social media’ and ‘depression’ in google scholar and you’ll find over 2,110,000 research related results.

Researchers are taking into account Twenge’s cultural shift by analyzing potential correlations between anxiety, depression, and social media. For example, researchers are asking questions such as:

(a) "whether exposure to other people’s social media postings promotes anxiety and depression by making other people’s lives seem more fun and exciting than theirs”

(b) "whether dependence on social media increases anxiety by reducing the ability to regulate one’s emotions”

(c) "whether the use of social media increases anxiety and depression by reducing face-to-face interactions resulting in skill deficits”

(d) "whether anxiety increases due to worries about being inadequately connected to peers or being left out”

(e) "whether anxiety, depression, and suicide occur as the result of cyberbullying and related behavior”

After reading these questions generated from Hoge, Bickham, and Cantor (2017), you may be thinking; what other factors could be prompting a rise in mood disorders? Perhaps genetics? Ian Gotlib, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Neurodevelopment, Affect, and Psychopathology Laboratory argues that “genetics can be ruled out as a potential factor because the increase in reports of mental health issues happens too quickly” (Molina, 2019). Instead, he agrees with Twenge (although he was not part of her study) stating that the cultural shift emphasizing individualism through screen time usage could be a correlational factor. "It’s correlational, but what’s increased with depression is the use of social media with kids; and I don’t think that should be underestimated” (Molina, 2019)

Ian Gotlib’s hypothesis is followed up by a growing body of research that provides correlational evidence that greater electronic media use is associated with negative socio-emotional implications. For example, a study show that more Facebook use predicted decreases in life satisfaction (Kross et al., 2008) while another study indicated results that technology-based social comparison and feedback seeking were associated with depressive symptoms that exceeded previous depressive symptom history (Nessi & Prinstine, 2017).

Although a majority of research focuses on the negative socio-emotional implications of social media use, there is also evidence that the “social nature of digital communication may be harnessed in some situations to improve mood and to promote health-enhancing strategies especially in non-depressed populations" (Hoge, Bickham, & Cantor, 2017). For example, research suggests that digital communication could be used as a social tool to improve mood and to promote healthy behaviors. It is these healthy behaviors that we aspire to attain through a healthy social media diet.

Given the growing body of research that provides correlational evidence that one form of screen time (social media use) is associated with negative socio-emotional implications, it is essential to continue to delineate which platforms may correlate to varying socio-emotional responses. It is evident that all screen time NOT created equal. Thus, we intend to review two additional screen time formats – gaming and VR – to provide answers to the digital questions we encounter in session. Stay tuned!


Hoge, E., Bickham, D., & Cantor, J. (2017). Digital Media, Anxiety, and Depression in Children. Pediatrics, 140(140S2). Via

Kross E., Verduyn P., Demiralp E., et al. (2013). Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults. PLoS One. 2013;8(8):e69841

Molina, B. (2019, March 15). More young adults are depressed and thinking of suicide, study says. Retrieved from

Nesi J., & Prinstein M.J. (2015). Using social media for social comparison and feedback seeking: gender and popularity moderate associations with depressive symptoms. J Abnorm Child Psychol, 43(8):1427–1438

Twenge, J. M. (2019). Supplemental Material for Age, Period, and Cohort Trends in Mood Disorder Indicators and Suicide-Related Outcomes in a Nationally Representative Dataset, 2005–2017. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. doi:10.1037/abn0000410.supp

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