• Article
  • April 7, 2021

Social Media Can Have a Good Effect on Behavioral Health

Study reveals both positive and negative effects of social media on children in mental health crises.

Franciscan ChildrensRalph Buonopaneweb
Ralph Buonopane, Ph.D., director, Child and Adolescent Inpatient Mental Health Program at Franciscan Children's, adopts new approach to research.

The role of social media in teen depression and suicide is well-documented—showing the connections between social media use and suicidality in teens. But a new study from Franciscan Children's in Brighton, Massachusetts, illustrates some positive impacts to go along with social media's potential negative effects.

"The majority of kids we worked with could differentiate between the positive and negative aspects of social media," says Ralph Buonopane, Ph.D., director of the Child and Adolescent Inpatient Mental Health Program at Franciscan Children's. "Kids really wanted help using what has become their ‘native language' to help connect with others for positive activities."

Study participants report both sides of social media's effect

Buonopane and his team adopted a new approach to their research by working exclusively with teens already in crisis. The qualitative study—in collaboration with research partners from Harvard University and Rutgers University—examined the effects of social media on 30 teens who had been hospitalized for a suicide attempt or severe suicidal ideation. The research focused on both positive and negative experiences with social media prior to, during and after their hospitalizations.

Among the negative experiences study participants reported were trouble monitoring screen time, finding content that could trigger feelings of depression or suicide ideation and anxiety around social media metrics such as followers and likes. But the study revealed many positives, including the ability to stay connected with friends and family, accessing positive and supportive content and virtually meeting other teens who shared similar experiences.

The key, according to Buonopane, is to create plans that leverage the positive aspects of social media—placing blanket restrictions on teens' social media exposure might limit negative effects but would also negate the positive ones.

Research leads to enhancements in patient care

Although the study was conducted prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Buonopane says the pandemic has accelerated strides in taking advantage of social media's benefits for at-risk youth. "The sudden surge to telehealth, teletherapy and virtual school has forced us all to think quickly and creatively about how technology can help us with kids in crisis," Buonopane says. "This was already being done before the rapid shift, but a lot of creative work has been done in just the last several months."

Franciscan Children's has updated its post-admission protocols to take advantage of the positive aspects of social media use:

  • Post-care plan. Formerly a packet of papers, discharge plans now go home with patients on their cellphones and with links to support resources, including YouTube videos with coping skills.
  • Blogs. Patients are provided links to moderated blogs where they can find support and communicate with professionals during times of crisis.
  • Collaboration. In a digital format, care plans can be shared with other appropriate parties, including parents, primary care providers and schools.

Teens welcome technology use for improved behavioral health outcomes

Studies are ongoing to gather more direct feedback from teens about the pros and cons of social media use. One study focuses on changes in communication patterns for teens—it indicates a child's texting frequency typically drops off prior to an admission for crisis, so Franciscan Children's is working on using technology to assess phone usage in hopes of predicting risk factors in real time.

"We have found that teenagers are interested in learning how to use technology and social media to help with the struggles they're having in their lives," Buonopane says. "The feedback has been very positive from teens in learning from and using technology to help with their mental health."

See additional behavioral health resources from CHA.