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The Social Media Dopamine

Updated: Mar 17, 2022

Delaney Ruston, Creator of Screenagers

"Delaney Ruston is a documentary filmmaker, author, Stanford trained physician and international speaker who shares stories about health issues and creates movements to foster individual and social change."

Interview Blog Post

1. Tell me about yourself, what you do, and how you ended up working in the area of Teen Mental Health?

I am a physician and social change documentary filmmaker who was very much impacted personally by growing up with two parents who had severe mental illness. As a young physician, I saw so many patients, adults, and teenagers struggling with mental health issues and yet, like me, often they had not told others of their struggles. Along with this silence, I also recognized a major limitation in the availability of resources that people could get for help. Thus 15 years ago, I decided to make my first documentary on the topic of mental health and continued to make films on the topic. When the tech revolution really took hold in my home, with my kids wanting more and more screen time, it created stress in my home, and it started to make me wonder how all this screen time was impacting kid’s and teen’s mental health. This led to the making of two documentaries, first, Screenagers and second Screenagers Next Chapter which both explore how we help ensure our teens have healthy development and emotional wellbeing in our new digital age.

2. How much of an impact do you think social media has on Teens Mental Health?

It's the million-dollar question, and everyone wants a simple answer, but it's very complicated. We do know that starting around 2011 the chance of a teenager saying that in the past 12 months they've had at least two weeks in a row where they were feeling either sad or unmotivated, along with other symptoms such as feeling not worthy, began to rise. By 2019 the chance of a teen reporting such symptoms had increased by roughly 60%. Around 2011 is also notable for the time when social media became more prominent in teens lives, this association is what make us concerned that social media might be contributing to this rise in depression type symptoms.

We know for sure situations do arise on social media that causes people to have poor mental health, whether they experience social cruelty online or do an act such as send a picture, and have it get widely spread in school. While teens have always experienced social cruelty situations I just described can now be amplified by the nature of social media and can literally happen 24/7. In addition, I worry about the intense abundance of social comparison that now happens on these platforms. This can have an insidious impact on one’s emotional wellbeing.

Of course, there are ways that people can get support and help through social media, so that's an upside, but to me there's no doubt that there are downsides. Many of which have contributed to this rise in mental health symptoms, but to what extent it's unclear. We must keep in mind that our tech revolution has many ways it can interfere with mental health. I think most importantly screen time in general is displacing a lot of things that we know are important for mental wellness, including sleep, face to face interactions, and opportunities for teens to develop a sense of competency --like the fact that fewer teens are doing after school jobs. I'd say a final point about the fact about our current times, is that families can be negatively impacted by conflicts created by the pull of tech and social media. Many homes are dealing with lots of fighting--kids who want more screen time and arguments that ensure, and the fact that families can feel very disjointed from each other. I talk time again and again with teens who say they rarely talk with their siblings because everyone is in their own screen time silos.

3. Do you think social media has positive benefits?

Yes, I mean social media is so many different things. There are positives like being able to reach current and past friends, to meet new people, to feel seen and appreciated, or to get support as I mentioned above. Teens also talk about the ways they get inspired by things they see--they might try a new art project or learn a new recipe to try. There are many other positives about social media.

4. What do you recommend for teens who still want to be able to stay connected with the outer world and community, but also don’t want to ruin their mental health on screens?

I say the number one thing that is important is to set up systems to not be pulled into excessive screen time. It is key that teens know that none of us should leave things up to willpower, because willpower and self-control are things that get used up--we all eventually can give into things we don’t want to, particularly if we are tired or stress. This is why creating systems is so key. Systems include things like having rules for yourself such as have devices out of the bedroom at night to protect sleep. I always say sleep is supreme and it is an essential nutrient for mental health. Another system could be that one uses a time management app and sticks to say, one and a half hours a day of social media. What is great is when our systems just become our everyday habits. For example, not using a phone during dinner time is an excellent system that helps keep families more bonded.

I think ultimately stopping, having awareness, and taking inventory every couple weeks to see what's working vs. what's not is beneficial. From there thinking about systems that can be employed or existing systems that can be improved upon.

5. How do you unintegrated social media out of your lifestyle without feeling such a big reliance on it?

I think partly it is a realization that one does not need to be on all platforms, but it takes communicating with friends to let them know where you can be found. Ultimately it falls in the bucket of having conversations with friends and letting them know when you won’t be on social media, and the limits you have set for yourself. I'm always impressed how many more ideas are out there than we might generate for ourselves. In my blog text Tuesdays, I often write about just all sorts of ways that I keep learning about what people are doing to not excessively use whatever platforms that they're getting pulled into. Whether that is social media, video games, or whatnot I think it's a conversation with friends, and it's learning to accept the FOMO feelings. That's what is incredibly hard for the teenage years with these devices is it's easier to say don’t go on, than it really is to follow through with the commitment. It takes having self-compassion and understanding that it is really hard to escape the trap feeling of social media for many people and it takes ongoing awareness.

6. Anything else you want to talk about or words of advice for teens out there, or advice for parents of teens who want them to diminish social media.

The key is really recognizing that trap, recognizing the increased risk of feeling low on social media, and really trying to stay away from just the scrolling and the comparing. Use it to have a phone call or some conversations with good friends so if you're going to be on it, it's very different to be talking one on one or in a supportive group than it is to be scrolling and seeing all the things that one is not or ways that they're being left out of. The other thing I would say in terms of final advice is that so many teens who go to college and eventually work through college start using social media less and less. They get insights into the realization that they don't want to spend all the time that they were when they were younger on social media.

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