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Digital Distortion | Social media and its impact on teens' mental health

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, teens spend an average of about nine hours a day in front of a screen.
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CONNECTICUT, USA — Being a teenager usually means there's a lot to like about life.

"I like to play lacrosse, hang out with my friends, and probably shop too," Mia Carrera, of Southington, said.

Scrolling through social media is also at the top of that list. However, when it comes to that, there's also plenty to dislike.

"It makes you feel like sad at times because you don't feel enough for other people. I don't know, people are like judgmental and stuff," said Macey Carrera, Mia's sister.

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The 13-year-old Carrera twins and their friend Ella Adames, also 13, know that being a teenager can also mean self-doubt, comparison, and other struggles that are only heightened by social media.

"You see people that like are maybe more like photogenic than you, or have better outfits, and like a better body or whatever," Adames said.

Experts say the ugly side of social media goes far beyond the pretty pictures.

"We get concerned for things like cyberbullying, we know kids if they're cyberbullied have higher rates of self-harm or suicidal ideation," said Dr. Melissa Santos, division chief of pediatric psychology at Connecticut Children's. "We also get worried about exposure to seeing risky behavior."

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That exposure can sometimes feel endless. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, teens spend an average of about nine hours a day in front of a screen.

"Children have no refuge anymore, they have no safety anymore, they can never untether themselves from the constant bombardment from technology and social media," said Sarah Egan, the state's child advocate.

That is something doctors fear as well.

"It could be sort of a suck that you just get absorbed into it and then you lose track of homework, schoolwork, getting to where you need to be or getting to work on time," Santos said.

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According to experts, it's all about getting the endless scrolling to stop and encouraging parents to try to limit their kids' screen time and lead by example, putting their own phones away.

"Not bringing our phones into bed and scrolling while we're trying to get to sleep and I think the best way we can model it is only going to help our kids as well," Santos said.

A former Facebook employee turned whistleblower, Frances Haugen, alleges the company's goal is to keep teens online as long as possible. She testified in front of U.S. and U.K. lawmakers accusing Facebook of having internal research that showed its video and photo-sharing app, Instagram, is harmful to teenagers. She accused the company of prioritizing profits over safety.

Facebook has pushed back on the claims.

"We care deeply about issues like safety, well-being, and mental health," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said. "It's difficult to see coverage that misrepresents our work and our motives."

However, lawmakers have still been calling for change. In addition to Haugen's testimony, Sen. Richard Blumenthal has been leading hearings with other social media companies as well. He pressed YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat about kids' safety and sent a letter asking them to disclose internal research about the effects on young people. He and other senators have called for stricter laws protecting children's online privacy.

Experts said social media is not all bad though. It can be a great way for children and teens to find other people with similar interests and connect with their friends. It's all about moderation, communicating with kids about their social media use, and using it responsibly.

Gaby Molina is a reporter and anchor at FOX61 News. She can be reached at gmolina@fox61.com. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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