Center for Digital Health

Social Distancing vs. Social Media: Can Social Media Mitigate the Effects of Social Deprivation in Adolescents?

While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced teens into physical isolation, social media apps have helped them keep in touch with one another.

social-distancingWe find ourselves in an isolated time due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has impacted the world. Social interaction can play a vital role in the physical and mental development of young adults and adolescents, and if the need for social interaction is not properly met, it can lead to ongoing negative consequences. [1]  Adolescence is a critical time of development when hormonal, biological, and psychological changes are profound. [2] During this time, adolescents are beginning to gain independence from their families and enhance relationships with their peers. A longitudinal study conducted over eight years followed youth ages 8 to 18 and found that teens spend significantly more time with their peers than their families, peaking at age 14, compared to children ages 10 and younger. [3] Because of the much needed social distancing regulations in place, adolescents are at risk of developing negative mental health outcomes now more than ever. Extreme loneliness can be related to a myriad of negative mental health issues, some of which include suicide, personality disorders, decreased executive control, and increased depressive symptoms. [1]

If we were not currently experiencing a global pandemic where social distancing is required to ensure the health and safety of our nation, the simple solution would be to encourage social interaction. However, the risk of exposure to COVID-19 has led many teens to turn to social media and technology to fulfill their social interaction. Around 95% of adolescents in the United States have access to a smartphone, and 97% reported having a social media profile, the most popular apps being YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat. [4,5] Social media has been the bridge that connects us during times of isolation, and while it is by no means a replacement for in-person interactions, 81% of adolescents have said that social media helps them feel more connected to friends, and 68% have said that it allows them to access social support during tough times. [4] 

As a solution, video chat applications have been rising in popularity with an increase of 12.4% for Google Duo and 79.4% for Houseparty. Visits to social media websites are increasing as well, with Facebook reporting a 27% increase in daily sessions from January 21st to March 24th, 2020. [6] On top of social media, users of digital mental health apps like the BetterHelp and Talkspace increased significantly during the pandemic to help foster connections with mental health counselors and healthy coping strategies. These innovative ways of connecting through social media and apps have helped us to combat some of the negative effects of social isolation. Although social media does not equate to in-person interaction, it may be a solution to mitigating the negative effects that social distancing regulations have on adolescent growth and development.  


1. Hawkley LC, Cacioppo JT. Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Ann Behav Med Publ Soc Behav Med. 2010;40(2):218-227. doi:10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8

2. Orben A, Tomova L, Blakemore S-J. The effects of social deprivation on adolescent development and mental health. Lancet Child Adolesc Health. 2020;4(8):634-640. doi:10.1016/S2352-4642(20)30186-3

3. Lam CB, McHale SM, Crouter AC. Time with Peers from Middle Childhood to Late Adolescence: Developmental Course and Adjustment Correlates. Child Dev. 2014;85(4):1677-1693. doi:10.1111/cdev.12235

4. Anderson M, Jiang J. Teens’ social media habits and experiences. Pew Res Cent Internet. November 2018:34.

5. Anderson M, Jiang J. Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018. May 2018.

6. Koeze E, Popper N. The Virus Changed the Way We Internet. The New York Times. Published April 7, 2020. Accessed August 5, 2020.