Social Media and the Mental Health of Teens

John PerrittBy John Perritt12 Minutes

In May 2023, the Surgeon General issued an advisory on social media and youth mental health. The report begins by stating, “Social media use by youth is nearly universal. Up to 95% of youth ages 13–17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media ‘almost constantly.’ Although age 13 is commonly the required minimum age used by social media platforms in the U.S., nearly 40% of children ages 8–12 use social media.”

While the report acknowledges the potential benefits for some children and adolescents, it includes more information on what is described as the profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of young people. “We must acknowledge the growing body of research about potential harms, increase our collective understanding of the risks associated with social media use, and urgently take action to create safe and healthy digital environments that minimize harm and safeguard children’s and adolescents’ mental health and well-being during critical stages of development.”

In his devotional for teens, Social Media Pressure: Finding Peace Alongside Jesus, John Perritt, a longtime youth pastor, guides teens in making sure that their relationship with God remains at the center of their life without letting their phones take over. Perritt shows why social media can leave users feeling sad, anxious, and depressed and points to practical ways of turning to Jesus for rest and wholeness. The devotionals address social media pressures including the fear of missing out, comparing yourself with others, being bullied, and even being addicted.

In this interview, we talk to John Perritt more about his book.

Q: What inspired a devotional specifically on the topic of social media and the pressures teens face as users?

In my earliest years of ministry, God placed a specific desire in me to minister to teens. While I loved my teen years, I went through some very hard stuff. I want to enter into those difficulties with teens and help them see the love of Jesus in the midst of it. Throughout my time in youth ministry, I’ve seen the ugly side of social media and the deep wounds it leaves on students. Since social media isn’t going to disappear, I wanted to write a devotional that would—by God’s grace—help students foster wisdom in their daily practices.

This book is written in response to the anxiety many of us feel through our experience with social media. In some ways the stress and loneliness can feel overt, and in some ways it’s more subtle. This book uncovers many of the ways in which our relationships, mental health, and perception of the world around us can be directly affected by our choices on social media. How do we gain more peace in our lives? How do we relate more thoughtfully with others? How do we recognize if we are becoming digitally addicted? What does God have to do with any of this?

Q: Most of us know the angst of reading posts on various platforms debating one subject or another and have probably threatened a social media fast or two for our own well-being. But what are some of the mental health effects teens specifically face from the pressures of social media?

Depression, anxiety, and addiction are probably the most common struggles and those that are typically discussed the most. Some other related effects are sleep deprivation, isolation, and the constant pressure of performing. Prior to social media, teens got to come home and get away from the peer pressures that plagued them at school, but now they bring their peer groups home with them in their pockets.

Q: What are some of the pressures of social media that are unique to the teen experience? Haven’t some of these pressures always existed, even before smartphones?

There’s a sense in which all of the pressures associated with social media have always been in existence. The intensity and frequency, however, are vastly different. For example, body image issues have always plagued girls and boys. Today the number of images our teens are bombarded with far exceeds that of any previous generation. Teens aren’t just comparing themselves to their classmates, but to millions of others represented on social media. Between Photoshop and filters, a lot of what they see aren’t even true representations.

Q: How do you get teens to think about whether or not their phone use has moved into sinful or even addictive behavior?

It has been said that we can discover our idols by what we spend the most time and money on. Getting students to consider how much time they spend with their device, on a certain platform, etc. can help them see if they are giving too much of their waking hours to this. An accompanying thought can be considering what makes you angry. Our idols cannot defend themselves, so we have to defend them. When parents take a device from their child and their child responds with anger, chances are that it has become an idol. In many ways, our idolatry is related to addiction. Sometimes addictions and idols are so sneaky that we hardly notice them day to day. Think of how many times you pick up your phone without even thinking about it.

It’s probably safe to say that a significant portion of the time we check our phones comes from an unhealthy place in our hearts. We need to be wise and humble enough to admit that some of the time our social media habits come from a place of false worship—looking to phones or social media to meet our deepest need for connection, comfort, safety, and affection. To say it another way, it would be foolish to assume that scrolling is void of any idolatry. This addiction bears fruit in the ways we seek refuge in things other than God.

Q: In what ways have our relationships changed alongside technology?

Relationships are incredibly hard. They have been since Genesis 3, and they will continue to be hard until Jesus returns. Social media and phones, however, have now made relationships even harder! Just like so many other difficulties in this fallen world, phones and social media have now added a layer of complexity.

Some of these strains on relationships have become so common that we don’t even think about them. How many times have you been at a restaurant with a dear friend and in mid-conversation they pick up their phone or glance at their smartwatch? You know they love you and care about you, but you also know they just gave their attention to something else while you were talking. This is so everyday and commonplace, we don’t even think to question it anymore. We’ve simply learned to accept it. This is just one minor example of the relational strain our devices can foster in our lives.

Isolation has definitely increased with this generation. Students are much more content to stay in their rooms on their devices than actually being present with others. Being untagged in pictures has become a more subtle way to bully students. Liking pictures has become a way of communicating who’s popular and who isn’t.

Q: How do we find peace in walking alongside Jesus among all the pressures of life?

There is no true and lasting peace outside of Jesus. He is the only one who can love us in the way we desire to be loved. Everyone who’s endlessly scrolling on social media is truly longing for Jesus and they don’t even know it. We keep thinking one more scroll, one more video, one more like will give us what we’re longing for, but Jesus is the answer.

He’s the only friend who won’t turn his back on you. He’s the only friend who isn’t too busy to listen to you. He will never give you the cold shoulder. He will never abandon you. He knows exactly what you’re going through. He loves you with a love that no other human can give.

Q: What guidelines do you suggest for more responsible online engagement and use of our devices?

This differs for each individual. We all have to be honest with our struggles and realize that some of us are more inclined toward various pressures that some may not struggle with. So, the first thing I would encourage is honesty.

Secondly, I think limiting our screen time is always a wise decision. Giving too much time to our devices is often feeding an idol, so limiting that time will limit the power of the idol.

Third, borrowing this from Andy Crouch, I think it’s important to start and end our days without devices. Wake up in God’s Word. Remind yourself who he is and who you are. End your day reflecting and removing the glow of the screen, which often only hinders our rest.

Order your copy of Social Media Pressure: Finding Peace Alongside Jesus by John Perritt