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Teens and social media: 'Unfollow some accounts that don't make you feel good'

·West Coast Correspondent
·4 min read
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You have to be at least 13 years old to create an Instagram account, but Facebook (FB) is working on a kid-friendly, ad-free version of the photo app. On Monday, 44 U.S. attorneys general penned a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg urging him to "abandon these plans," saying "Facebook is not responding to a need, but instead creating one," pointing to social media's harmful impact on the "physical, emotional, and mental well-being of children."

While federal law requires companies to ask permission from parents of kids 13 and under to collect data, it's clear kids are able to access just about any platform notwithstanding the barriers to entry. Sixty-five percent of children between 9 and 12 years old say they've used Instagram, and 40% say they are on the platform at least once a day. according to a comprehensive new report from Thorn, a nonprofit that works to end the sexual exploitation and abuse of children. 

The Internet, and social media in particular, have become vital tools for kids and teens during the last 15 months, as the pandemic stripped away in-person interaction. But it also has become a destination of endless doom scrolling and incessant comparison, especially as platforms like Instagram have become home to highly edited images that don't reflect reality, having a disproportionate impact on youth.

Seventeen percent of youth aged between 6 and 17 years old experience a mental health disorder, ranging from generalized anxiety and depression to eating disorders and schizophrenia, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Half of all lifetime mental illnesses develop by age 14, and 75% develop by age 24. Globally, depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents. And suicide is the third leading cause of death in older adolescents, those between 15 and 19, according to the World Health Organization. Half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years but most cases are undetected and untreated.

SPAIN - 2021/03/29: In this photo illustration, the Instagram app in App Store seen displayed on a smartphone screen and a Instagram logo in the background. (Photo Illustration by Thiago Prudencio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
The Instagram app in App Store (Photo Illustration by Thiago Prudencio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

According to a 2016 Penn State paper cited in the AGs' letter to Zuckerberg, “the amount of [Facebook] time allocated to photo activity…is associated with greater” body-image dissatisfaction (i.e. “thin-ideal internalization, self-objectification, weight dissatisfaction, and drive for thinness”) among girls. Other studies have come to similar conclusions. A 2018 paper published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found a causal link between social media use and feelings of anxiety among college students. 

Dr. Nina Vasan, psychiatrist and professor at Stanford, where she founded Brainstorm: the Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation, has a unique perspective on the complex issue, working at the intersection of tech and mental health.

'Compassionate search'

"I think what's so important to note about social media is that it's not so much necessarily how much time we're spending on social media, but how we're using social media. There's tremendous opportunities, whether it's kids who are connecting with people — they feel really lonely and isolated...LGBTQ kids who are able to talk to someone whom they've never been able to before, or reconnecting with friends. There's so many ways to feel connected via social media, and so much really good education and information that you can get," she said during Yahoo's Reset Your Mindset series, a 30-minute special livestream that aired on May 13.

Brainstorm is the first academic lab dedicated to transforming mental health at scale through tech-enabled products. Vasan worked with Pinterest (PINS) to design the “compassionate search” experience which provides treatments for anxiety, depression, and self-harm for Pinterest's 350 million users, and reduced self-harm content by 88%.

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Vasan is also the chief medical officer of Real, a company founded by her former student and launched during Covid-19, that provides a digital offering of mental health services for as little as $1 per day. By setting boundaries and following accounts that are informative, encouraging and positive, teenagers can find meaningful, powerful connections.

"We all have been in those situations where we've been on social media, and we've seen that it can make you depressed, it can make you anxious...all the negativity that's out there. Kids are bombarded with so much information," Vasan said. "And what we're seeing is that It's really important for kids to be able to be mindful of how are they feeling when they're consuming this information."

She said it's often helpful to set reminders for yourself to not spend too much time on a certain platform, and even "unfollow some accounts that don't make you feel good, or when you find some accounts that do make you feel good, that add joy to your life, to be able to do more of that."

Melody Hahm is Yahoo Finance’s West Coast correspondent, covering entrepreneurship, technology and culture. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm and on LinkedIn.

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