Medicine / Psychiatry & Family Medicine
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Professional insight on social media habits in adolescence

April 4th, 2018

Ariel Crocker - Medical Student1, Matthew Vasey MD2

1MD Candidate, University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, Class of 2019
2Department of Emergency Medicine, Tampa General Hospital | TeamHealth, an affiliate of University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine

Disclosure: Opinions reflect neither employer nor affiliated institutions, soley those of the author(s).

As a medical student, I have to be at the hospital by 5:15 am. Kendall Jenner does not. Yet I still feel bad that my morning routine does not include SoulCycle, a heart shaped foam design in my PSL (pumpkin-spiced latte) and chia-seed infused power oatmeal. My social media feeds are filled with images of aspirational lifestyles that seem doable if only I try harder. I would go to sleep at night wondering if I woke up at 3:30 am, could I fit in the hour of cardio that will make me feel #blessed?

Celebrities have make-up artists, estheticians, stylists, perceived unlimited funds, and most importantly, time to create the image of perfection. But the blame doesn't just lie in Hollywood. Most of our connections online only post about their success or the happy moments. We get a skewed reality that we may be the only ones living a life with both ups and downs. This is especially true in teenagers, who have less life experience and are still developing reasoning skills. They feel disappointment that they don’t stack up against these unrealistic expectations. These thoughts can be hard to process which then can affect sleep. And from my experience at health clinics working with teenagers, social media changes teenagers’ expectations of their reality and causes anxiety. This can cause lack of sleep, which can have serious health consequences.

As I’ll explain, people who get less sleep are more likely to become anxious and this has health repercussions. These feelings of unease and the worry that social media produces are amplified in teenagers.

During my family medicine rotation this year I interacted with many teenagers at a weekly adolescent clinic. For the teens who were diagnosed with anxiety, trouble sleeping was often the presenting symptom. Many psychiatrists believe that sleep patterns can predict anxiety symptoms in early adolescence.(1) Lack of sleep leading to anxiety or anxiety causing lack of sleep is a vicious cycle with serious consequences. Anxiety in teens is associated with educational underachievement due to a decrease in working memory and cognitive filter.(2) These functional impairments can sometimes extend into adulthood. Also, adolescents suffering from anxiety have increased propensity for risky behavior that can lead to drug dependence, car accidents and other injuries.(3)

When I asked the teenagers in clinic about sleep habits, many described that they were physically unable to separate themselves from their smart-phones and therefore their social media accounts at night. Their smartphone was in bed with them. Sleeping for a teenager is hard enough due to their biologically programed change to a later sleep cycle.(4) Throw in a bright screen with access to all of their friends and frenemies, then this is made even harder. How can you doze off when you have one ear open for an alert that your cat meme was liked?

The visionaries behind the technology and social media driven world we live in are aware of the burden on our lives that their inventions have caused. Steve Jobs told the New York Times in 2010 that his children hadn’t yet used an iPad and that his family strictly limits interaction with technology and therefore social media at home.(5) In 2011, also in the New York Times, an article on the Association of Waldorf Schools was published. These schools provide a private (and expensive) education for many children of Silicon Valley executives. You will not find one computer in the classroom. The article states Waldorf Schools "subscribe to a teaching philosophy focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks" and that "those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans".(6) Interesting, how even some of the people who created the social media platforms and profit off of selling the idealized life of constant interconnectedness, don’t even want a computer near their own children’s education?

Young starving medical students, teens, parents of future teens, really anyone who uses social media should probably check their usage. It’s time to make some changes and get some sleep. My mornings are now actually social media free and so are my work-days. Since I decreased my social media use, I am sleeping better and overall less anxious. These are the steps I took.

Step 1. No phone in bed. Keep your phone plugged into the wall across the room. Or better yet, in another room. I use my Amazon Echo as my alarm.

Step 2. Delete all Social Media applications from phone. But how are you going to post the adorable foam design in your PSL? You won’t. And that’s a good thing. Soon maybe you’ll stop feeling the pull to share everything with your online world. It is nice enjoy something no matter how many "likes" you think it would garner if you had posted it. You can find joy of life precious moment with yourself, or maybe show someone in the coffee shop. Say hello, you could make someone’s day.

I know what you are thinking, you can just use the web browser to access your social media accounts on your phone to post your avo [avocado] toast..

Step 3. Block social media URLs on phone. If really want to see it, you’ll have to go to your laptop. On an iPhone go to Settings -> Restrictions -> Websites -> Add them ALL. The celebrity gossip sites, Buzzfeed, or anything else you waste your time on. Unfortunately, now news sites are on my blocked list because it’s getting too crazy. Today’s politics are way more entertaining than celebrity news these days. *sigh*

Step 4. On your personal laptop download a program that blocks websites. I use SelfControl on my Mac. First add in your notorious time-sucking websites (same ones as you did on your phone). Then you select the amount of time you want the websites blocked. I have mine set on 24 hours.

I am not anti-social media. I have an Instagram and Facebook. I love seeing what my family and friends are doing. But it was just starting to be too much. These are my Monday-Friday rules. At 5:15 am when I had only slept 5 hours, the first thing I did was check my Instagram page. Seeing the fun dinners my friends had the night before wasn’t helpful to the tasks I needed to get done. On weekends I usually keep my weekday social media rules because I have to study. However, if I am going to a birthday dinner, on a vacation or have something special that I’d like to share with my family and friends with social media, I’ll easily download the Instagram app. But don’t forget to delete Sunday evening in preparation for a productive week!

The first few weeks were definitely hard. I know to some hourly social media users this seems a little drastic, but lack of sleep and anxiety is no joke. I would know, I have anxiety. The constant feeling of having a 1,000-item to-do list hanging over you while you can’t seem to figure out where to begin is something I am very familiar with. Anxiousness is a natural and instinctual human emotion that requires disciplined and practiced higher cognitive thought to keep this primitive survival mechanism under control. Social media by design targets this emotional part of the brain. Getting rid of the distraction of social media has been wonderful. I have more focus in my day and then I enjoy my allotted, guilt-free social media time when my schedule allows. It feels nice to be back in control.


1. McMakin DL, Alfano CA. (2015). Sleep and anxiety in late childhood and early adolescence. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 28(6):483-9.

2. Steenari, M.-R., Vuontela, V., Paavonen, E. J., Carlson, S., Fjällberg, M., & Aronen, E. T. (2003). Working memory and sleep in 6- to 13-year-old school children. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 42(1), 85–92.

3. Romer, D., Betancourt, L. M., Brodsky, N. L., Giannetta, J. M., Yang, W., & Hurt, H. (2011). Prospective study of relations between working memory performance, impulsivity, and risk taking in early adolescence. Developmental Science, 14(5), 1119–1133.

4. Dahl RE1, Lewin DS. (2002) Pathways to adolescent health sleep regulation and behavior. J Adolesc Health. 31(6 Suppl):175-84.

5. Bilton, N. Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent. Sept 10, 2014.

6. Richtel, M. A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute. Oct 22, 2011.

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