Risks and remedies for adolescent social media use

By DOU KAI / 05-30-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Excessive use of social media can threaten teenagers’ mental health. Photo: TUCHONG

Social media offers teenagers a platform to cultivate and broaden their social connections, fostering a constructive self-image and nurturing social capital. However, excessive use of social media can pose potential risks to teenagers’ mental health, including diminished life contentment and well-being, heightened fear of missing out, loneliness, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. 

Problematic social media use

With the widespread use of smartphones and the decreasing age of users, mobile social media occupies an increasingly significant proportion of the social landscape. Teenagers, in particular, prefer to use online social platforms for communication, making them more susceptible to problematic social media usage patterns. Therefore, uncovering the mechanisms of problematic social media use among teenagers and devising coping strategies has become a global research topic.

Problematic social media use, a new concept derived from social online addiction, primarily refers to an individual’s lack of control over their social media use, resulting in prolonged and intensive engagement leading to adverse physiological and psychological consequences. Previous research has often explored the determinants of problematic social media use among teenagers from individual perspectives, such as personality traits (e.g., emotional stability, narcissism), psychological motivations (e.g., need for belonging, social needs), and negative emotions (e.g., depression, anxiety). However, less attention has been paid to the ecological perspective, which elucidates how peer and familial risk factors influence the development of problematic social media use among teenagers.

Peer rejection

According to the compensatory internet use theory, adolescents who encounter various forms of peer rejection, such as neglect or exclusion, develop diverse motivational needs. To address these needs, they may resort to excessive use of social media platforms, consequently leading to problematic social media use. The multiple motivational theory posits that individuals, when faced with rejection, may develop both social avoidance and social approach motivations concurrently, thereby influencing their online behaviors.

Our survey, encompassing 965 middle school students, revealed a notable correlation between severe peer rejection and heightened addiction to social media platforms among teenagers. Peer rejection was observed to indirectly impact problematic social media use among teenagers through two distinct pathways: fear of missing out (approach path) and social avoidance (avoidance path). This indicates that the motivation for using social media among rejected individuals is not solely to avoid social situations or worry about missing social opportunities, but is driven by complex emotions.

Peer rejection precipitates teenagers’ addiction to social media via at least two motivational pathways. 

First, peer rejection enhances teenagers’ social approach motivation, instigating concerns about missing out on crucial social information or opportunities, thereby encouraging excessive social media use. Recent studies underscore that heightened fear of missing out correlates with increased social media consumption aimed at staying abreast of others’ activities, leading to problematic social media use among teenagers. According to self-determination theory, teenagers grappling with peer rejection confront threats to their fundamental psychological needs, such as the need for belonging and interpersonal connections, intensifying apprehensions about losing touch with peers and missing out on social information, thus exacerbating problematic social media engagement via the “approach path.” 

Second, rejection experiences evoke feelings of pain and vulnerability. To escape the pain and avoid further harm, individuals may seek alternative relationships through social media to avoid relations with those who used to reject them. They may also use social media platforms to browse news or entertainment content to avoid social situations. Research findings suggest that adopting the “avoidance path” to cope with peer rejection also exacerbates problematic social media use.


Family matters

Family dynamics play a pivotal role in shaping a child’s developmental trajectory, constituting a vital microsystem throughout adolescence. An unfavorable family environment can undermine teenagers’ basic psychological needs (e.g., need for belonging, need for relationships), thereby intensifying their reliance on social media to fulfill the dual needs of “avoiding offline social interactions” and “seeking relational satisfaction.” Studies have found that teenagers often encounter multiple interpersonal stressors in the family microsystem, such as parental psychological control, parent-child conflict, and parental marital conflict. 

Cumulatively, these multiple stressors exert a more robust and enduring influence on predicting problematic internet use among teenagers. According to the cumulative risk model, different risk factors often occur simultaneously, and multiple stressors are more likely than isolated factors to lead to problematic internet behaviors in teenagers.

In our longitudinal study spanning two years and involving over 2000 teenagers aged 12-13 and 16-17, we elucidated the dynamic interplay between family cumulative risk and the trajectory of problematic social media usage among adolescents. Firstly, our findings reveal that girls are at a heightened risk of developing problematic social media habits than boys. Teenagers aged 16-17 have higher levels of problematic social media use compared to those aged 12-13. However, while problematic social media use among 12-13-year-olds shows a linear growth trend, it decreases among 16-17-year-olds. 

Secondly, family cumulative risk significantly predicts the initial level of problematic social media use among teenagers. Adolescents with higher family cumulative risk exhibit more severe problematic social media use at the early stages of development. 

Thirdly, family cumulative risk significantly predicts the initial level and development rate of problematic social media use through avoidance motivation. This indicates that the accumulation of multiple family stressors encourages teenagers to prefer social media as an escape from reality and seek online relational satisfaction. This has important implications for understanding how family cumulative risk influences teenagers’ motivations for using social media.

Family-school-society ecosystem

Drawing upon ecosystem theory, mitigating interpersonal risks across multiple domains—namely, the “family-school-society” nexus—holds promise in averting the onset of problematic social media usage among teenagers.

Creating a positive family atmosphere and establishing warm parent-child relationships are the first lines of defense in fostering healthy social media use among teenagers. Parents should strengthen communication and interaction with their children, providing warmth and emotional support. They should also set an example and supervise their children. They should not only pay attention to their daily lives and address their negative emotions, but also cultivate their positive psychological qualities to promote self-control. It is advisable to organize more family activities to increase positive interactions among family members and cultivate children’s interests and hobbies, so as to reduce the allure of social media platforms.

Schools should create a harmonious and supportive atmosphere, establish positive teacher-student and peer relationships, and prioritize comprehensive psychological health education of teenagers. Schools can include reasonable internet use as an essential part of students’ psychological development guidance by conducting lectures and offering psychological courses to highlight the dangers of social media addiction and guide students on its appropriate use. 

Positive teacher-student and peer relationships provide adolescents with social support, reducing adverse interpersonal risks and pressures. Teachers should pay attention to students’ psychological states, respect and care for them, and encourage healthy peer interactions through study groups and sharing sessions to fulfill teenagers’ social needs offline, thus diminishing their reliance on social media. Schools should also promote diverse interests among teenagers by organizing various sports, cultural, and recreational activities to meet their psychological needs and enrich their real-life experiences, allowing them to enjoy the pleasures of offline social interactions.

Society should actively create a healthy online environment, improve relevant laws and regulations, and leverage community roles to ensure teenagers use social media appropriately. Efforts should be made to build a civilized and well-regulated cyberspace, treat and use social media properly, and promote positive energy through social platforms to create a clean online space. Strengthening supervision of teenagers’ internet use is crucial to ensuring anti-addiction measures are effectively implemented. Regulatory bodies should increase the frequency and intensity of inspections on social media platforms’ time limits, real-name registration, and payment regulations, and strictly deal with companies that fail to comply with related policies. 

Communities should also tailor activity venues to teenagers, enhancing the attractiveness of offline life by adding teenager-friendly fitness facilities in neighborhoods to provide environments for physical exercise and outdoor activities, thereby effectively reducing teenagers’ excessive use of social media.

Dou Kai is an associate professor and director of the Research Center of Adolescent Psychology and Behavior under the School of Education at Guangzhou University. 

Edited by WENG RONG