Social Media Contagion has Altered Teen Self-perception: Fear Is Constant

Social media contagion has altered teen self-perception.

Medical science, national and local surveys, and sociologists have verified that adolescents are under tremendous pressure, and half of them are not dealing with it effectively.[1] More than six in ten teenagers I share a meal with every Wednesday meet regularly with a professional counselor. Many young people I interviewed for this project are using prescribed medication for their anxiety and depression. Sociologists are trying to figure out what cultural factors may be responsible for this uptick in anxiety and depression.

Social media contagion has altered teen self-perception. Language and space shape adolescent stories about self and others and social media contagion affect language and space. To discover what shapes adolescent attitudes and actions, I have analyzed data that suggests social media contagion has altered teen self-perception. This reshaping affects their personal, familial, and extended relationships. Current research deduces that screen time is a major contributing factor in the deterioration of teen mental health.[2] My discoveries mirror the literature being lauded by Dr. Michael Unger in Psychology Today, who writes, “one has to wonder if the very real increase in emergency room visits for mood disorders and self-reported anxiety among teens isn’t a byproduct of more accessible technology that both connects and isolates at the same time.”[3]

Psychologist and author, Jean M. Twenge, released a book in 2017, using the iconic- iGen title to identify an age-specific group of people (8-25). In it, she reported on the inherent dangers surrounding young people due to social media dependence and denial of reality. She writes, “Everyone likes me and thinks I’m great in my safe space / We can face almost anything, but reality we can do without.”[4] She borrows data acquired from 11 million surveys conducted by the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). Twenge also notes that this jump in anxiety and depression among youth occurred simultaneously when cell phones became a normal accessory for most teens.[5] Twenge’s work has its critics. She is said to provide little actual data, and at times leaps to conclusions,[6] but the YRBS acknowledges a measurable increase in teen anxiety, while the spike in mental anguish began when cell phones became easily accessible.

Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in her book Alone Together, rightly observes that “adolescents need to learn empathic skills, to think about values and identity, to manage and express feelings, but technology has changed the rules. “’Sometimes you don't have time for your friends except if they're online.’"[7] The way in which young people communicate is changing. Young people converse in abbreviated text acronyms and emojis are becoming the new way to connect feelings with reality. Twenge, Turkle, and Unger along with Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, agree that teens are under severe pressure and social media contributes to their anxiety. Christian Smith laments that “young people – teens – are under incredible pressure to perform. Intense expectations are placed on them. As a colleague of mine has suggested, social media appears to be all about social performance, creating a personality that isn’t real, and teens are experiencing a deep unhappiness about this.”[8] Smith, understands that teen desire to perform involves being liked, accepted, and happy.

I concur with the insight of these professionals. However, I also notice how teens offer nonsexual touch and embrace one another as caring people. Our regular attendees at the center over the past three years are connected online and intimately in person. I watched a distraught teen girl receive enormous attention and comfort from friends after her father died. Tears are common each month at the teen center. Sometimes it is drama brought on by immaturity, a recent break-up, or frustration at home, but these young people are not absent nor distant but actively engaged in life together.

Mant teens here are not hiding behind a device, but neither do they manage it well. There may be multiple reasons why youth are depressed and anxious, and there is documented agreement that youth are inappropriately dealing with this ongoing strain. Social media contagion affects their self-perception. In 2020, I wrote a paper for a doctoral course where I described how teens here “do not benefit from empathy and compassion that are forged within interpersonal relationships, students are instead separating from one another and their parents while attempting to work out their affairs alone.”[9] I was wrong! My observations were genuine but untrained. Until I began to examine closely how they interact with one another I thought they were isolating. Yes, a group of teens will sit together at a table and all be on a device and not talking to one another. I witness this all of the time. They communicate and socialize electronically, but teens here are eager to connect physically in small groups too.

Twenge observes, “In the next decade we may see more young people who know just the right emoji for a situation—but not the right facial expression,”[10] but that does not describe the youth I minister among. To be sure, social media is affecting teen mental health! But for teens that I interact with weekly, it does not appear to separate or isolate them from each other. As a marginalized group where binaries are fluid, they seek refuge with, not apart one another.

In 2020, I sought feedback from local professionals who dealt directly with young adults and from here expanded my inquiry by interviewing five students who frequent the center. Not content with my findings, I created an anonymous twenty-two-question survey that I handed out to an additional twenty-one teens. The feedback received from those in community leadership was helpful in that it confirmed how widely recognized mental health struggles are among local teenagers due in part to an excessive amount of time on an electronic device.

In my interview with the high school counselors, each having over 25 years of experience, I asked, “why do you think anxiety and depression are rising among students?” One replied, “anxiety increases because expectations are higher…AP [advanced placement] classes increase stress about college (long pause) parents aren’t paying attention to teen needs.” As I pondered the statements by the school counselors, I began to question how much actual pressure the Advanced Placement (AP) courses affect the majority of teens who frequent our center. The bulk of teens who attend here are in Special Education classes and are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. As a substitute teacher in the school district, I am acquainted with them inside and outside of school. Therefore, AP courses have a limited role in causing mental strain for these teens. If performance is the main issue for anxiety and depression, it is a different kind of performance. I favor Christian Smith’s understanding that teen desire to perform involves the innate desire to be liked, accepted, and happy.[11]

Fear of the future terrorized two teens I talked with. During an interview with a 14-year-old female, I asked, “at the end of the day what do you find yourself thinking about?” She replied, “what’s tomorrow going to be like? I’m terrified of tomorrow.” I posed the same question to a 15-year-old male, and he responded, “I fear that I’m not gonna wake up.” Anxiety is not limited to the pressures of school performance. Success in life was less talked about by interviewees whereas existing in life is what weighs on them.

[1] Center for Disease Control’s annual Report Preliminary Edgerton - Edgerton High 2019 YRBS Results (High School Version) file:///C:/Users/info/OneDrive%20%20Northern%20Seminary/Documents/Edgerton_High_survey%202019.pdf; see also Monica Anderson and Jingjing Jiang, “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018”, (accessed 12/13/2022).

[2] Boers E, Afzali MH, Newton N, Conrod P. Association of Screen Time and Depression in Adolescence.

[3] Michael Ungar, Ph.D., Family Therapist and Professor of Social Work at Dalhousie University where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience. Since 2002,

[4] Jean M. Twenge, iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017),54.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Malcolm Harris, “Are Smartphones Destroying a Generation, or Are Consultants?” (accessed 12/13/22).

[7] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, 3rd ed., (New York: Basic Books, 2011)175.

[8] Christian Smith, “Young Souls in Transition: An Interview with Christian Smith,”

[9] David Flood (2020) Does The Impact of Social Media at The Edgerton Teen Center Negatively Affect Recreational Relationships? [Unpublished Paper], Becoming Doctors of the Church, Contextual Theology, Northern Seminary.

[10] Jean M. Twenge, 91.

[11] Christian Smith, “Young Souls in Transition: An Interview with Christian Smith,”

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