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Heart Disease: For Teens, It's Not Just Cardiovascular

by Guest Blogger, Andrea Coulis

Andrea Coulis recently completed her MPH at Northwestern University and is now Director of Program Strategy at a breast cancer nonprofit organization. She has been a court-appointed special advocate for abused and neglected children in Cook County for over 8 years and holds a special interest in keeping children safe.

Almost all of us have been guilty of letting social media affect our moods: a quick jolt of excitement after receiving a “like” from a friend or a feeling of FOMO while sitting on the couch watching stories of friends’ exotic vacations on Instagram. But for teens, the desire to see the Instagram “heart” fill in red isn’t just a fleeting wish. It can develop into an actual addiction that for some grows into a full-blown disorder with heartbreaking consequences.

Experimental research shows that social media platforms are known to have harmful effects on teen mental health, especially for teens struggling with issues like anxiety, depression, or eating disorders. The Instagram “feed” is well-known to tailor content to each user’s engagement patterns in a way that maximizes time spent on the platform, and unfortunately, content stirring up strong negative emotions tends to keep people engaged for longer. As a result, the very algorithm pushes teens into a spiral of intensely addicting negative emotions.

But even the somewhat positive interactions can have a harmful effect. A study by the UCLA brain mapping center demonstrated that certain regions of teen brains associated with addiction and reward become activated by “likes” or other forms of peer approval on social media, leaving teens pining for more once they’ve had a taste, similar to the way alcoholics often cannot stop drinking once they feel a buzz. The reward region of the brain is especially sensitive for teenagers, putting them at risk for even stronger addictions than for the rest of us. In fact, a recent study by the Pew Research Center revealed that nearly half of teens claim to being online “almost constantly.” Another study by the UK Journal of Youth Studies reported that one-fifth of teens admitted to waking up in the middle of the night specifically to log into social media.

It follows, then, that lack of sleep, addictive behavior, and increased opportunity for cyber-bullying would lead to some serious issues. A recent JAMA Psychiatry study reinforces this concern, claiming that adolescents who use social media for more than three hours per day may be at heightened risk of mental health disorders. In fact, the problem is so widespread that various forms of it now have their own names, including “social media anxiety disorder” and “Facebook depression”, which according to the American Academy of Pediatrics occurs “when adolescents and teens who spend time on social media begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression as a result of the intensity of the online world.”

The effects of social media-related mental illness can be just as deadly as any physical disease. A 10-year study conducted by Brigham Young University demonstrated a higher clinical risk for suicide in teen girls who used social media excessively, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death for teens in the United States according to the CDC.

So, what can be done to protect young hearts and minds from the dangers of social media? While it is unlikely that social media companies themselves will give up profitability for the cause, and government intervention may be slow to respond if ever, there are action steps parents can take now:

  • Set limits on social media time and block harmful content

  • Encourage in-person contact with friends

  • Keep an open dialogue with teens about their mental health and response to social media content to help them deal with associated negative emotions.

Importantly, if you believe your child may be experiencing depression or anxiety related to social media use, don’t hesitate to contact your child’s healthcare provider. Just like traditional cardiovascular issues can be averted with lifestyle changes and proper care, this type of heart disease is preventable, too.

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