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Understanding Social Media and Youth Mental Health


Julia Zehr, Ph.D.
Division of Translational Research


This concept aims to encourage research on the impact of social media and technology on youth mental health. For the purposes of this concept, social media are defined as internet-based communication platforms and applications that enable interactions between users by sharing or consuming information. Youth have increasing access to social media and spend an increasing amount of time engaging in online social interactions and consuming content on social media platforms.  However, there is limited knowledge about the bidirectional relationship between social media and youth mental health. This concept provides an opportunity to understand relationships among social media behavior, social media engagement, social context, and youth mental health.


In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an Advisory on Youth Mental Health , which highlighted the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis. The advisory called special attention to the need for rigorous research on how youth engage with social media, gaming, and a wide variety of online images and content. Research on social media has been challenging, due in part to the difficulty of adequately capturing social media behaviors and online experiences across hardware and software platforms, and due in part to the rapidly changing role of social media in society’s digital ecosystem. Evolving methods for digital data collection, including keystroke logging, image and voice analysis, GPS, and accelerometer data, as well as advances in bioinformatics and computational approaches, have made research on digital behaviors more tractable, and these methods are ready for use in social media research.

By addressing a variety of gap areas, the research spurred by this concept could lead to identification of risk and protective factors for social media use in youth that in turn could inform potential targets for novel and improved interventions.   Research areas include but are not limited to: 1) potential harms of social media on youth mental health, as well as the interventions that might address them; 2) social media as a tool to identify children at risk for psychopathology; 3) role of digital social interactions in youth social development and their contributions to risk and resilience for psychopathology; 4) methodological and ethical considerations for research on social media behaviors in youth; and 5) how social media behaviors interact with the efficacy and effectiveness of mental health interventions.