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For Sydney teenager Rhiannon Martin, social media is both a source of connection and concern.

“It’s definitely become… part of my life. I go on it every day,” the 13-year-old says.

“I use Snapchat and Tiktok, and sometimes I go on Facebook… that’s where I communicate with my friends and family.”

Rhiannon loves making her friends laugh with funny filters and the occasional TikTok dance video.

“It’s just amazing… how people can create stuff,” she says.

Rhiannon says filters are a fun way of using social media.(ABC News)

But presenting a perfectly curated online image can be extremely anxiety-inducing.

“If someone said on social media that I was ugly or something, that would affect me really badly.”

The pressure to be online all the time is also a challenge.

“Some days I’m just, like, really addicted to my phone,” Rhiannon says.

“And I kind of want to be back when my mum and dad were kids, when they didn’t have any technology.”

A teenage girl scrolls through her smartphone
Rhiannon says it can be hard sometimes to limit her social media use.

The link between social media use and mental health

The proliferation of social media has coincided with a record increase in diagnosed anxiety and depression among young people over the last decade.

But the link between social media use and adolescent mental health is still not properly understood.

There are some major drivers, Dr Tam says: social comparison — when you compare yourself with friends or even famous people — and the fear of missing out (FOMO).

He also believes social media is changing the way young people develop their sense of identity.

“Their sense of self, rather than being grounded in their own… internal values, desires and wants, is actually created in a very real way by what the outside world thinks of them,” he said.

“If young people are doing this too much, they actually develop a kind of negative sense of self.”

Another issue Dr Tam regularly sees among his client in his clinical work is social media addiction.

“Young people and indeed people of all ages can actually in a material and clinically significant sense become addicted.”

Social media icons on a phone screen.  A hand is holding the phone but the person is out of frame.
Dr Philip Tam says being more intentional about the content you consume on social media can help mitigate its mental health risks. (Pexels: Tracy LeBlanc)

Not all social media use has the same mental health impact

Yet Dr Tam doesn’t believe social media is inherently bad or harmful for children or young people.

The real issue, he says, is “how we use it and what we use it for”.

Recent research also suggests the way social media is used can determine its mental health impact.

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