Is Social Media Causing the Youth Mental Health Crisis?

teen on the phone

Mental health problems in young people are skyrocketing. A recent survey found that 57% of teenage girls report being consistently sad and 24% have made plans to take their own lives. Are social media sites to blame? Hundreds of lawsuits claim this is the case.

The City of New York has joined attorneys general in dozens of U.S. states and more than 200 school districts nationwide in filing lawsuits alleging that social media sites are responsible for the rising teen mental health epidemic.

The New York City filing in February 2024 names the firms that own Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, and Snapchat. The lawsuit attempts to compel these social media powerhouses to alter their operating models in addition to paying for the costs of youth mental health programs.

New York City, attorneys general in dozens of U.S. states, and hundreds of school districts nationwide have filed lawsuits alleging that social media sites are responsible for the teen mental health epidemic. Click To Tweet

It remains to be seen how these lawsuits will play out. In the meantime, a growing body of research suggests that excessive social media use has negative consequences on mental health.


In a press conference, NYC Mayor Eric Adams suggested that social media platforms utilize methods that are driving a host of mental health disorders in children, adolescents, and teens. This echoes a March 2023 report from the U.S. Surgeon General detailing some of the potential dangers of social media.

Indeed, multiple studies have found a link between social media usage and mental health issues. For example, a 2020 systematic review of 16 scientific papers found a connection between social media activity and anxiety and depression.

Other findings have suggested a link between social media and mental health problems, such as:

Youngsters who use social media heavily tend to have poor sleep habits, which can lead to anxiousness and low moods. It can also exacerbate existing symptoms associated with anxiety disorders and clinical depression.

Brain-imaging studies at Amen Clinics using SPECT scans reveal that overuse of social media, as well as video gaming, have negative impacts on brain function.

For example, excessive social media use can cause changes in the brain that make it harder to regulate behavior and reduce self-control. These issues drive young people to spend even more time on social media platforms, creating an unhealthy cycle.

One brain-imaging study in JAMA Pediatrics found that adolescents who habitually check social media sites experience changes in the brain related to social rewards and punishments. The researchers suggested that this may lead to changes in self-control and impulsivity.


In many of the lawsuits filed, plaintiffs point to several features used to drive excessive use of social media platforms. Some of these features are similar to those used in gambling or by tobacco companies to trigger compulsive usage.

Drivers of social media addiction include algorithms that personalize content, infinite scrolling and autoplay, alerts to grab a person’s attention, and ephemeral content that disappears after a certain amount of time.

These addictive features can affect people of all ages, however, adolescents with developing brains are more susceptible. In part, this is because the brain’s prefrontal cortex isn’t fully mature until a person’s mid-20s.

The prefrontal cortex is involved in focus, planning, judgment, forethought, follow-through, impulse control, and more. This means that children and teens are more likely to be impulsive and to act without thinking about the consequences of their actions.

Youngsters are also more vulnerable because they are at a point in their lives when they are involved in self-discovery and self-identity. Their desire for acceptance from their peers is especially high at this age.


Although it remains unclear if the owners of social media platforms will be held accountable in U.S. courts for the rising mental health disorders in adolescents, there are things parents can do now to help.

The following tips are some of the recommendations given to the parents of thousands of young patients at Amen Clinics. Putting these strategies into action can be a good first step in safeguarding your child or teen from social media addiction and its consequences.

  1. Strengthen their prefrontal cortex.

A healthy prefrontal cortex is critical for self-regulation and impulse control. Help adolescents develop healthy habits that boost function in this developing brain region.

  • Make sure youngsters get adequate sleep. A 2020 study in Pediatrics reports that screen time before bed is one of the common causes of sleep disorders in children and teens. The Sleep Foundation recommends that teens get 8-10 hours of sleep per night.
  • Encourage adolescents to engage in high-intensity exercise to help boost blood flow to the brain.
  • Meditation (or prayer) can also enhance activity and blood flow in this brain region.
  • Feed them a healthy diet that includes some protein at every meal.
  1. Set social media limits.

When it comes to social media, young people need limits. Using parental controls is a good start, but it is only a start. Do not rely solely on technology to solve your youngster’s social media problems. Parents need to set and enforce rules and limits.

For example, consider having a no phones at the dinner table rule. Have youngsters put their phones in a basket on your nightstand for the night when it’s time to go to bed. Only allow kids to use tech devices if you have access to their passwords.

  1. Be a good role model.

Parents can’t expect their children to self-regulate social media usage if mom and dad are glued to their phones too. Young people tend to engage in the same behaviors as their parents. If you want your teens to develop a healthy relationship with social media, you need to model that behavior for them.

Social media addiction, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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