How Does Social Media Affect Teens' Health?

Studying the health impact of social media on adolescents
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When Megan Moreno, M.D., started her subspecialty training in adolescent health back in 2005, she often found herself playing detective. Teens would come in complaining of chronic headaches or stomachaches, but the causes often weren’t what one would normally expect.

“When I would ask the patients when these symptoms started, they would say it was around the same time embarrassing pictures were posted of them on Myspace or Facebook,” Moreno says.

In the decade that’s followed, the proliferation of smartphone apps and networking websites has meant that the opportunities for adolescent social media involvement have multiplied exponentially—and so have the risks of cyberbullying, peer pressure and Internet addiction.

Moreno’s interest in the impact of social media on adolescents and young adults led her to the research realm. As the principal investigator of the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team (SMAHRT), housed at Seattle Children’s Hospital’s Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, she oversees a group of about 12 researchers and several ongoing studies.

“Our projects look at the intersection between technology use—especially social—and adolescent health,” says Moreno, who also sees patients in addition to conducting her research work.

One of SMAHRT’s current projects, funded by the National Institute of Justice, seeks to create a consensus-based definition of “cyberbullying.” Surveys typically use the term loosely. One survey may call cyberbullying “being mean online,” while another may define it as “being threatened in a chat room.” Because of these discrepancies, research on the phenomenon delivers widely varying results.

“Schools often struggle with the definition,” Moreno says. “If you’re going to punish or prevent, there needs to be a firm definition of what you’re dealing with.”

Another SMAHRT study involves the creation of a survey that will measure problematic Internet usage among adolescents. Moreno’s team will partner with the school-based health nurse at Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School to conduct the survey and share the results with parents and administrators. A similar SMAHRT survey—translated into Dutch—is being used with high school students in the Netherlands, and a Swedish study is in the works.  

“The issues teens are facing with technology are global,” Moreno says.

Despite the potential dangers adolescents face online, Moreno believes social media has much to offer young people, such as the opportunity to connect with friends and family members who live far away, to keep up with global events and to organize groups for positive reasons, such as civic engagement or support. An apt comparison might be between the initial backlash to the Internet and social media and fears expressed over the advent of the telephone more than a century earlier. The concerns parents had back then are the same many have now: that teens will be isolated and lose the ability to interact face-to-face.

“Social media is a tool,” Moreno says. “It’s not inherently good or bad; it’s how you use it that matters.” With help from Moreno and her SMAHRT cohorts, the journey into cyberspace should be a little more manageable.