Parenting Around Frequent Social Media Use

By Stop Medicine Abuse Posted February 28, 2020 under Not My Teen, Talking to Your Teen

This post was updated slightly in October of 2022.

If your teen is constantly taking Snapchat selfies or scrolling through their Instagram feed, rest assured that they are not the only ones. Today’s teens spend hours on social media each day, and by now it’s no secret that this behavior affects their mental health.

In fact, a recent ExpressVPN study discovered that 86% of the 1,500 participants agreed social media has a direct influence on their individual happiness. American participants, aged 16 to 24, reported:

  • 85% agree that social media has negative effects on self-esteem
  • 85% agree that social media has negative effects on self-image
  • 83% agree that social media can lead to an increase in anxiety
  • 81% agree that social media can lead to an increase in loneliness
  • 79% agree that social media can lead to an increase in depression

Despite 61% being concerned about social media addiction and 50% being envious of people without a social media presence, only 20% said they would need to be paid more than $1 million in exchange for deleting their most frequently used social media account.

Toxic Space or Support System?

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased screen time even more amongst teens, have these issues been exacerbated? Early-pandemic studies from China identified links between social media use and rates of depression and anxiety. One potential influence is the act of “doomscrolling” – a term coined during the pandemic to refer to the practice of consuming a large quantity of negative news in rapid succession. Stressful and negative news activates the body’s nervous system to produce stress hormones, resulting in symptoms like headaches, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and disrupted sleep. “Doomscrolling” can take a toll on anyone’s mental health, and teens are particularly vulnerable.

Fortunately, teens seem to be highly aware that social media can be a potential threat to their wellbeing. Teens are “frustrated by the negative aspects of social media, including hate speech and bad behavior, emphasis on highly curated images and narrow standards of beauty, notifications, ads, triggering content, and design features promoting endless scrolls and viewing,” says Vicki Harrison, Program Director of the Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing at Stanford University. “Many older adolescents have adopted strategies to manage their mental health and balance their usage, whether by taking social media breaks, changing their settings, or avoiding certain apps.”

That doesn’t mean that social media is all bad all the time. There are plenty of positive aspects of social media use. Some include:

  • Strengthened relationships
  • Heightened sense of belonging
  • Increased access to new information
  • Reducing loneliness
  • Removing barriers to isolation
  • Global awareness and engagement

One positive of social media use during the pandemic was its ability to replace in-person connection. Modern teens weren’t afforded the luxury of going to the mall to hang with their friends. Social media apps were their malls and playgrounds. Playing on your phone became the only way to safely play with your friends during the pandemic. Studies show that “increased daily engagement with social media lends to more meaningful conversations and an increase in creative expression,” and some teens find support systems for mental health challenges on social platforms.

As contradicting guidance around social media abounds, it’s clear there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

So, what can parents do?

Jill Emanuele, senior director of the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York, noted, “The idea is to promote other positive habits rather than saying to kids, ‘You can’t be on social media as much.” So, before setting parental controls and restricting screen time, consider encouraging your teens to pursue behaviors that will support a healthier mental state. Don’t just tell them what to do; explain how prioritizing sleep and exercise over screen time will help them feel better and they just might do it on their own accord. Talk to them about how they should handle online drama, peer pressure, and/or cyberbullying. If you don’t understand how to have these conversations due to your age or lack of internet etiquette, ask your teen. You might get a couple eye rolls in response, but they may find comfort in knowing you are trying your best to understand this new, virtual world they’re growing up in.

Other helpful tips to keep in mind:

  • Encourage your teen to practice moderation with social media – while it isn’t yet known exactly how much excessive social media use is affecting teens, Emanuele noted that “anything in extreme is not good.”
  • Advise your teen to limit screen time and, ideally, turn devices off completely before bed – blue light emitted by phones, computers and television screens can disrupt sleep; friends’ social posts and photos can too. It’s important to be able to wind down from the day without those distractions.
  • Urge your teen to track the hours they spend on social media – they might be surprised by the results and be inspired to refrain from frequent usage.

When it comes to communicating with your teen, fostering and maintaining open communication will help make it easier to talk through all sorts of issues, including potentially unhealthy levels of social media use.

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