Youth from all over South Africa are accessing social media and consuming content that promotes material wealth and sets unrealistic expectations of what life is supposed to be like. Picture: Pexels

Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media are more likely to develop mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, feelings of self-consciousness and low self-esteem, according to research published by American psychiatry journal, JAMA. 

During Mental Health Awareness Month, which takes place in October, Fourways-based non-profit Witkoppen Clinic has raised concerns about the impact of social media on teen mental health.

“Seeing people constantly on holiday or buying expensive things can make young people feel like they are missing out while others are enjoying life. These feelings can promote a ‘compare and despair’ attitude, which leads teens to search for ways to make their lives more ‘insta-worthy’,” says Tamsyn Nash, specialist clinic medical officer at Witkoppen Clinic.

Youth from all over South Africa are accessing social media and consuming content that promotes material wealth and sets unrealistic expectations of what life is supposed to be like. 

“This can have a negative impact on a teen’s mental health, as they start to feel their lives are not as good as those portrayed online,” says Nash.

Social media use itself doesn’t cause problems; “It’s the side-effects, such as cyber-bullying, the tendency to idolise the lives of others, failure to see friends in real life and lack of sleep which causes problems,” she says. 

Social media can cause teens to feel overwhelmed by the pressure to construct a positive image of themselves and their lives. An example of how young women have attempted to raise their online status is by seeking out "blessers" – older men who buy gifts for them in exchange for sex. 

For teens struggling financially, this can seem like a viable way to access and imitate the lifestyles they see on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“Engaging with blessers opens young women up to sexual predators and increases the risk of teenage pregnancy and contracting STI’s such as HIV. Social media can put vulnerable youth at an even higher risk,” says Nash. 

“At Witkoppen Clinic, we encourage young people to think carefully about what they see on social media. If you feel like it’s taking a toll on your mental health, take a break for a day or two and remember that social media does not equal reality.”