Parenting Around Frequent Social Media Use
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 as noted in a recent TODAY article, which shared findings from the latest Longitudinal Study of Young People in England published in The Lancet.
For the study, thousands of teens between the ages of 13 and 16 years old in more than 800 schools were interviewed once a year for three years. In the interviews, the teens were asked to report the frequency of their social media use as well as the state of their mental wellbeing. “Very frequent social media use” was defined as using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and WhatsApp three or more times a day.
Of note, the study documented markedly higher levels of psychological distress among girls than among boys. Girls who reported having psychological distress also reported greater exposure to cyberbullying, lack of sleep and lack of exercise. While boys did not record similar experiences, researchers noted the disparity could be attributed to a tendency for girls to internalize distress, whereas boys tend to externalize distress by engaging in negative behavior.
Overall, teens who reported frequent use of social media also recorded mental distress. However, the data indicated that constant use of social platforms was not the sole cause of mental health issues, but rather interrupted activities that support mental wellbeing.
While this study was specific to teens in England, it’s safe to say that the connection between social media and mental wellbeing is not an isolated one.
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.”
However, one positive of social media use during the pandemic is its ability to replace in-person connection. Additionally, 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. Explain how prioritizing sleep and exercise over screen time will help them feel better. Talk to them about how they should handle online drama, pressure or cyberbullying.
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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