Mental Health

The vast majority of articles addressing the impacts of technology on kids center around mental health issues. While most studies show a correlation between technology use and mental health, more recent studies are establishing a causal link between some technology use, mainly social media use, and mental health issues, such as decreased well-being, and mental illness.

For suggestions and solutions, see Empower: Mental Health, Social Media and Sleep.

Social Media

Sure, Social Media has the ability to connect people in ways we could never connect before. This is especially helpful for marginalized individuals and groups, and for raising awareness of philanthropic ventures.

At TLO, there is no way we could do what we do without social media. Unfortunately, all this connectivity is not without its drawbacks, particularly as it relates to mental health.

There are a variety of reasons why social media use contributes to negative well-being including relational aggression, social comparison and social exclusion or FOMO.

Because of where they are in their physical development, social media has a negative impact on middle and high schoolers. This is the result of focusing on likes, cyberbullying and fake friends.

The ongoing pressure to respond and post, and less face-to-face interactions is also negatively affecting teens’ and adults’ well-being.


Technology impacts the quantity and quality of sleep in three ways:

Blue light from devices affects our natural sleep cycles by delaying the bodies release of melatonin.

Information overload and activity absorption also affects our ability to unplug. Endless scrolling, one more chapter, one more email keep us from settling down to sleep and also affect quality of sleep.

Distractions, especially troublesome for tweens and teens, prevent us from settling down to sleep and/or staying asleep. Anticipation of and actual texts, calls and alerts, even when silenced, can interfere with quality sleep.

Quantity and quality of sleep negatively affect mood, relationships and mental health.

Sleep deprivation negatively impacts areas of the brain responsible for motivation, emotional response, emotional regulation, emotional processing, repetitive thinking and empathy. All of which are linked to mood disorders and mental illness and health issues.

let’s look at the numbers*

Rates of depression and anxiety have remained stable until recently:

Major Depressive Episode in last year (Ages 12-17)


7% of Boys

Up from 5% in 2010

20% of Girls

Up from 12% in 2010


Hospital Admission for Non-Fatal Self-Harm

No significant change in boys


Girls ages 10-14

up 189%

since 2009

Girls ages 15-19

up 62%

since 2009


Social Media and Mental Health.

The statistics above are alarming and many health professionals and researchers are conducting studies in an attempt to understand why.

What is the cause?

Based of preliminary data and consideration of timing and sex differences, many in the field see a correlation between mental health and the increased use of smartphones and social media by children.

By 2010, more than half of middle and high schoolers have smartphones and social media. And that number has risen steadily since.

Why does social media affects girls more than boys?

Relational Aggression.

Boys use smartphones to access gaming and pornography.

Girls use smartphones and social media to engage in relational aggression. Girls bully by damaging each others’ social relationships, often anonymously, day and night, through spreading rumors, forwarding doctored pictures and social exclusion.


Social Comparison.

Prior to social media, girls would compare themselves to models. Now, girls compare themselves to photo-shopped images of their peers on social media. Additionally, the posting of life experiences can be just as discouraging, leading to feelings of inadequacy.


Social Exclusion.

Girls are much more sensitive to social exclusion and FOMO than boys. Social media exacerbates these instances. Girls also rely heavily on peers for social validation through social media likes and comments.

Other explanations for how social media can negatively affect well-being:

Focusing on likes: During middle school and high school, adolescents are developing their identities. In figuring out who they are, they often look to peers for validation. Social media has been designed to exploit this need. Tweens and teens often feel pressure to alter their appearance and engage in negative and risky behavior, all in the name of validation through likes.

Cyberbullying: There is no question that cyberbullying is a major culprit in the onset of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts amongst adolescents. Cyberbullying occurs when kids forward messages and pictures, engage in verbal abuse, sometime anonymously, and deliberately exclude others.

Having too many fake friends: Even with privacy settings, teens tend to rack up 100s to 1000s of friends on social media sites which contributes to the collection of personal information, photos and messages that are often used as social ammunition by fake or fickle friends. There is no privacy on social media.

Pressure to respond and post: Teens are under an incredible amount of internal and external pressure to not only respond to messages, maintain SnapChat streak and manage 100s of incoming texts, but also to post interesting, funny, attractive photos and status updates. This pressure can be consuming, especially when teens are basing their self-worth on the responses they will receive from these posts.

Less face time: Social interaction requires practice. It’s difficult to build empathy, compassion and resilience when communicating online. Human connection is tied to feelings of positive well being and helps kids build important skills for the future.

wow, that was depressing. What can we do about this?

Technology executives and developers are limiting their own personal use and their children’s use of technology, particularly devices and social media.

As devices and apps have evolved, they’ve become better and more addictive, making it difficult for kids to disconnect. An army of psychologists and developers employee psychological techniques to keep users on devices and apps.

As a result, kids are spending less time engaged in healthy activities, such as playing outside and face-to-face communication, and more and more time on devices.

For more suggestions and solutions, visit our empower section on mental health, social media and smartphones.

As a community, we can solve the problem by establishing sensible societal norms.

Sleep Disruption.

At one point or another, we have all experienced the effects of too little sleep. Sleep can affect our mood, relationships and mental health.

Hold up. How does technology affect sleep?

There is no questions that blue light affects our natural sleep cycles, or circadian rhythms, by delaying the bodies release of melatonin. Research suggests that 5 nights of exposure to blue light from devices can delay the natural body clock by 1.5 hours.

Information overload and activity absorption also affects our ability to unplug. Endless scrolling, one more chapter, one more email keep us from settling down to sleep and also affect quality of sleep.

Distractions, especially troublesome for tweens and teens, prevent us from settling down to sleep and/or staying asleep. Anticipation of and actual texts, calls and alerts, even when silenced, can interfere with quality sleep and even wake us.

Insomnia and sleep disruption can amplify the effects of psychiatric disorders, and vice versa. Teens who are already suffering the negative mental health effects of social media may have worsening effects due to sleep deprivation.

Ok so How does the quality and quantity of sleep affect mood, relationships and mental health?

  • Deepest sleep produces physiological changes that help boost immune system functions.

  • REM sleep enhances learning and memory, and contributes to emotional health.

  • People with insomnia and other sleep issues do not respond as well to treatments of depression.

Sleep deprivation:

  • interferes with the brain processing center, disrupts mood and increases risks for depression, risk-taking behavior and addiction.

  • causes the amygdala to go into overdrive, which in turn causes us to react more intensely to situations.

  • interferes with emotional regulation which contributes to further negative feelings.

  • impacts impulsivity which can lead to irrational behavior and decreased sense of well-being.

  • increases repetitive negative thinking which leads to depression and anxiety.

  • produces unmetered, inappropriate emotional reactions, and inability to place events into a broader or considered context.

  • amplifies anticipatory anxiety.

  • impairs empathy.

  • undermines our ability to exhibit self-control which could contribute to overuse of social media and technology.


  • No devices in bedrooms. Allow technology use in places where you, the parent, can monitor it.

  • Power down at least 1-2 hours before bed to protect sleep and to ensure your teen is getting the break they need from the pressure to be connected.

  • Let your teen blame you. Give them words: “Tell your friends that I’m the worst and I wont allow it.”

  • Delay social media until high school (Bullying in middle school is far more intense than high school).

  • Establish a “People Come First” rule around device use in your home and car. Create a “Cell Motel” and collect devices during events in your home. You’re not an Uber driver. Require riders in your car to talk to you while you drive them from here to there.

  • Encourage face-to-face interactions, free play and time outdoors.

  • Encourage mindful use of technology. Choosing to engage vs. responding to alerts.

  • Take breaks from screens (for instance, 20 minutes on, 60 minutes off).

  • Talk to your teen about how social media makes them feel and how it feels to disconnect. Screenagers Filmmaker Delaney Ruston, MD, offers suggestions on how to talk with your kids about technology here and here.

*Data and some suggestions borrowed from Psychologist Jonathan Haidt. To hear directly from him, listen here starting at 1:18.

To learn more about how teens are using social media and for more suggestions, visit our Empower section, particularly Social Media and Smartphones.

Learn More about Social Media and Mental Health.

Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents - Previous research on associations between screen time and psychological well-being among children and adolescents has been conflicting, leading some researchers to question the limits on screen time suggested by physician organizations. This study examined a large ( 40,337 individuals) national random sample of 2- to 17-year-old children and adolescents in the U.S. in 2016 that included comprehensive measures of screen time (including cell phones, computers, electronic devices, electronic games, and TV) and an array of psychological well-being measures. After 1 h/day of use, more hours of daily screen time were associated with lower psychological well-being, including less curiosity, lower self-control, more distractibility, more difficulty making friends, less emotional stability, being more difficult to care for, and inability to finish tasks. Among 14- to 17-year-olds, high users of screens (7+ h/day vs. low users of 1 h/day) were more than twice as likely to ever have been diagnosed with depression, ever diagnosed with anxiety, treated by a mental health professional or have taken medication for a psychological or behavioral issue in the last 12  months. Moderate use of screens (4 h/day) was also associated with lower psychological well-being. Non-users and low users of screens generally did not differ in well-being. Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being were larger among adolescents than younger children.

There’s Worrying New Research About Kids’ Screen Time and Their Mental Health - Time Magazine recap of above study.

Forbes - New Studies Show Just How Bad Social Media Is For Mental Health - Two new studies underline this reality by showing not just correlation, but causation—in other words, that tweaking your time on social media actually has measurable effects on mental health.

Science Daily - Social media use increases depression and loneliness, study finds. Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram may not be great for personal well-being. The first experimental study examining use of multiple platforms shows a causal link between time spent on these social media and increased depression and loneliness.

Science Direct - The effects of active social media engagement with peers on body image in young women

Washington Times - “From 2010 to 2015, a record number of teenagers were reporting depressive symptoms and overloading mental health clinics, while suicide rates climbed for the first time in decades,” said psychologist Jean Twenge, lead author of the study, which was published Tuesday in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

American Academy of Pediatrics - The use of social media during adolescence can also negatively impact health and development. Although the majority of adolescents report that social media are a positive contribution to their lives,19 more negative associations with social media have also been documented in the research literature. These include cyberbullying, depression, social anxiety, and exposure to developmentally inappropriate content.

The Atlantic - Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy. Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan.

Science Daily - Risky decisions: Excessive social media use is comparable to drug addiction. Bad decision-making is a trait oftentimes associated with drug addicts and pathological gamblers, but what about people who excessively use social media? New research by the University of Michigan shows a connection between social media use and impaired risky decision-making, which is commonly deficient in substance addiction.

Google - We discussed two negative behavioral cycles: an internal experience of habit and excessive use, and an externally reinforced cycle of social obligation. Research has also found the use of smartphones to regulate unpleasant emotional states, such as distracting oneself from negative feelings or to increase stimulation and feelings of social connection when bored or lonely [20]; these attention- and emotion-regulation motives were found to be related to the practice of texting while driving [10].

Time - Why Instagram Is the Worst Social Media for Mental Health. Instagram is the worst social media network for mental health and wellbeing, according to a recent survey of almost 1,500 teens and young adults. While the photo-based platform got points for self-expression and self-identity, it was also associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.”

*Data and some suggestions borrowed from Psychologist Jonathan Haidt. To hear directly from him, listen here starting at 1:18.Learn More.

Learn More about Technology and Sleep.

American Association of Sleep Technologists - (Article with suggestions) Most people today go to bed with their cell phone, tablet, laptop, or television to keep them company. Unfortunately, the result of that can be a long night of wakefulness prompted by the light from these devices along with the stimulating mental activity required to play games, watch movies, or take care of last-minute work-related emails before turning in.

There’s also the risk that they’ll become wrapped up in what they’re doing and continue long past the time they’d normally go to sleep. All these things combine to leave your patients getting less sleep than they’re accustomed to and far less than they need.

The Sleep Foundation - Electronics in the Bedroom: Why it’s important to turn off before you turn in.

The Sleep Judge - Information overload can preventing your mind from settling down to sleep, causing both delayed sleep and less restful sleep.

National Sleep Foundation - Three ways gadgets are keeping you awake: suppression of Melatonin, brain alertness, and waking you up.

National Sleep Foundation - The blue light that’s emitted from these screens can delay the release of sleep-inducing  melatonin, increase alertness, and reset the body’s internal clock (or  circadian rhythm ) to a later schedule. This is an especially big problem for teens whose circadian rhythms are already shifting naturally, causing them to feel awake later at night. The end result: sleep-deprived or poorly rested kids who have essentially given themselves a mini case of jet lag.

Harvard Medical School - Blue Light has a Dark Side - Light at night is part of the reason so many people don't get enough sleep, says Lockley, and researchers have linked short sleep to increased risk for depression, as well as diabetes and cardiovascular problems.

Learn More about Sleep Deprivation and Mental Health.

Technology Networks - A large literature of studies on depression and reward circuitry have found that depression is characterized by less activity in the brain’s reward system. The results suggest that sleep deprivation in the tween and teen years may interfere with how the brain processes rewards, which could disrupt mood and put a person at risk of depression, as well as risk-taking behavior and addiction.

Journal of Neuroscience - “Sleep Deprivation Amplifies Reactivity of Brain Reward Networks, Biasing the Appraisal of Positive Emotional Experiences.” Sleep deprivation affects the emotional rapid response area of the brain, known as the amygdala. When short on sleep, the amygdala goes into overdrive, causing us to be more intensely reactive to situations.

National Institute of Health - “Sleep deprivation and interference by emotional distracters.” At the same time the amygdala is fired up, lack of sleep also hampers the communication between the amygdala and another area of the brain involved in emotional regulation—the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain handles a lot of complex tasks, and one of them is to put the brakes on impulsiveness. 

Medical News Today - Scientists working with adults who fixate on negative thoughts have noted a link between this distressing compulsion and poorer-quality sleep, as well as shorter sleep duration. Repetitive negative thinking occurs when a person compulsively lingers on thoughts and stimuli that are distressing and unhelpful, which often leads to a decreased quality of life and the emergence of mental health problems, tied to depression and anxiety, in particular.

UC Berkeley - Neuroscientists have found that sleep deprivation amplifies anticipatory anxiety by firing up the brain’s amygdala and insular cortex, regions associated with emotional processing. The resulting pattern mimics the abnormal neural activity seen in anxiety disorders. 

Wiley Online Library - Our results indicate that a night of sleep loss impairs the ability to share the emotional state of others, which is an important skill in everyday social interactions in both the workplace and personal life. These findings are consistent with previous research revealing negative effects of sleep loss on cognition and emotional processing in general, and extend these effects to emotional empathy in particular.

Biological Psychiatry - Sleep disturbance and psychiatric disorders: A longitudinal epidemiological study of young Adults. Michigan HMO conducted study finds that those who reported a history of insomnia were 4 times more likely to develop depression than normal sleepers.

University of Oxford - The Wellcome-funded study was conducted by researchers at the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, University of Oxford. It found that sleep disruption is a driving factor in the occurrence of paranoia, hallucinatory experiences, and other mental health problems in young adults (university students) with an average age of 25.