It’s a time like no other. More people are more connected than ever, yet they feel more isolated and more dependent on others’ perceptions of who they are. While the opioid crisis is getting all the attention, and rightly so, there is another growing threat to more people of all ages.

It’s social media. It’s alluring. It’s addictive. It’s even fun – until it becomes a threat to mental health.

A New Demon in Dual Diagnosis Rehab

Those of us who work every day with teens and adults in dual diagnosis rehab  – and undergoing co-occurring treatment – understand the relationship of mental illness and substance abuse. But now we have to consider the surprisingly frightening combination of mobile devices (the enabler) and social media (the drug).

In a recent NBC news spotlight, a Harvard professor talked about cell phone addiction, social media and the mental health of teenagers. This was in response to comments from Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, who said that Apple would be working to help teens overcome the sometimes deadly combination of cell phones and social media apps. Believe this is like the tobacco companies leading an anti-smoking campaign? Hopefully, Apple’s concern is sincere, real and actionable.

Who’s Most at Risk?

Without question, teens are the most susceptible to the negative effects of social media. Why?

They are largely consumed with self-image. More than whom they think they are, teens are a reflection of what others think they are. They require approval. They need to be a part of a group. And they need instant gratification. Social media offer the quick fix that fulfills all these demands. If you look at Facebook alone, you can understand how they’re judged by the number of friends they have, the number of “Likes” and “Comments” they get and the number of “Groups” they belong to. One “unfriending” on Faceboook, one hurtful Tweet or one embarrassing photo on Instagram can be devastating.

They are the group most prone to bullying. By this time, everyone is familiar with the effects of cyber bullying. It’s an epidemic that has claimed the lives of way too many teens whose mental insecurity can be the pathway to mental illness and substance abuse – key reasons for the need for dual diagnosis treatment.

They are seemingly immune to the concept of time. Teens seem almost tireless, as witnessed by their tolerance for long hours online and without sleep. But that same Harvard professor mentioned earlier said that they do, in fact suffer from lack of sleep, which can result in both mental and physical issues. Many teens not only sleep with their mobile devices next to their beds, they’re under their pillows! This struggle with “cell phone separation,” is cause for concern and intervention.

Parents: Helpless or Helpful?

Many parents feel helpless in the face of the social media tsunami. But there are several things parents can do to mitigate the power of social media.

Recognize the signs of depression. Depression and other mental illness can certainly pre-date or coincide with the effects of social media. So first parents must recognize the signs of depression, including, but not limited to:

  • Feeling hopeless
  • Lack of self-worth
  • Rapid weight loss/gain
  • Lack of sleep
  • Irritability
  • Thoughts of death and suicide
  • Social isolation
  • Obsession with illness and appearance
  • Exhaustion

Set a good example for social media moderation. Here’s a scene from many American families: Everyone sitting around the dinner table, interacting with their mobile devices, rather than each other. It’s important to set times when phones and other devices are in blackout mode. Time to talk one-on-one – to truly connect.

Talk about teens’ online and offline experiences. Asking kids about their involvement with social media indicates an interest in them and what sites they interact with. Of course, you’ll learn about your teens, as you learn about their friends and habits. Don’t just pry. Genuinely show interest. See what they are sharing.

There’s Help for All of Us: Co-Occurring Treatment Programs

While the focus of this article has been the effects of social media addiction among teens, adults are also susceptible to the damaging effects of social media. Their addiction may not be as obvious, but we all need to be cognizant of the impact of social media and mental health.

Cornerstone Recovery Center is a South Florida drug treatment center that offers co-occurring treatment for mental health disorders and substance use disorder. If you or a loved one needs help for an anxiety disorder and addiction, please contact our admissions counselor online or call 954-556-7441 today. All communications with our staff are confidential.