SOCIAL MEDIA AND KIDS’ MENTAL HEALTH: HOW TO NAVIGATE AND PROTECTJun 06, 2023
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory called Social Media and Youth Mental Health. In his 24-page report he noted that although the effects of social media on adolescent mental health are not fully understood yet, and that social media can be beneficial to some users, “there are ample indicators that social media can also have profound risk of harm to the mental health and well being of children and adolescents.” Dr. Vivek urged immediate action from policymakers, tech companies and parents to safeguard against potential harms.
This advisory joins a growing number of calls for action around social media as experts continue to probe what role it may play in the ongoing teen mental health crisis. Rates of anxiety, depression and eating disorders among teens and children are skyrocketing. I will highlight some of his important points and findings and offer some guidance to help navigate social media use with your own children.
Social media use by kids and adolescence is universal. Up to 95% of kids ages 13-17 report using a social media platform (I’m sure there are many younger kids who are not reporting their use too), with almost a third saying they use social media “constantly.” Although the minimum age requirement for many of these social media platforms is usually age 13, nearly 40% of kids 8-12 use social media.
While social media may have some benefits for some kids, there is ample evidence that is can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well being of kids.
Among the benefits, adolescents report that social media helps them feel more accepted (58%), like they have people who can support them through tough times (67%), like they have a place to show their creative side (71%), and more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives (80%). Research also suggests that social media based mental health interventions may also be helpful for some children and adolescents by promoting help seeking behaviors and serving as a gateway to initiating mental health care.
However, adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes such as symptoms of depression and anxiety. Social media can also perpetuate and exacerbate body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls. A study conducted among 14-year-olds found that greater social media use predicted poor sleep, online harassment, poor body image low self esteem and higher depressive symptoms with a larger association for girls than boys.
When asked about the impact of social media on their body image, nearly half (46%) of adolescents aged 13-17 said social media makes them feel worse, 40% said it made them feel neither better nor worse and only 14% said it makes them feel better.
Also, social media platforms can be sites for predatory behaviors and interactions with the worst dregs of society targeting and having access to children and adolescents. Nearly 6 in 10 adolescent girls say they have been contacted by a stranger on certain social media platforms in ways that make them uncomfortable. This means in your daughter’s class of 20 girls, more than half have been impacted by online harassment and abuse.
Nearly every teenager in America uses social media and yet we do not have enough evidence to conclude that it is sufficiently safe for them. Dr. Murthy points out that our kids have become unknowing participants in a decades long experiment. It is critical that researchers and technology companies work together to rapidly advance our understanding of the impact of social media on children and adolescents.
While the onus of mitigating the potential harms of social media should not be placed solely on the shoulders of parents and caregivers there are steps they can take to help protect and support children and adolescents against the risk of harm. Dr. Murthy addresses what policy makers and tech companies can do to help protect our youth and design safe online environments that prevent, minimize and address the risk associated with social media (if you are interested in his ideas on this, see his advisory).
So, as parents what can you do to protect your kids?
1) Delay social media use as long as possible. Try to make sure your child does not have access to social media if they are under the age of 13. Yes, I know this is hard and I also know this is a stance worth taking.
It is worth mentioning that I am using the age 13 in this article but I do not necessarily believe that 13 year olds should have access to social media. I don't know that there is a specific age, rather there is a STAGE that kids need to be at in their development. Personality, maturity, impulse control skills, critical thinking skills, their overall well being, risk factors and certain vulnerabilities all need to be considered when deciding if it is the right time for social media.
Think of social media similar to learning to drive. You need to be of age to be able to start the process of being able to get on the road and you need to have a learner’s permit before getting a full license. During this time, you cannot drive in a car alone. You need lessons to learn about the traffic rules, safety behaviors and habits and potential dangers. Also, we know that not every 16 year old is necessarily ready to be on the road, even with all the lessons and precautions.
Let’s think about social media for our kids in the same way. Introduce it gradually and at first use it together. Discuss the “rules” of use (I have a sample social media contract for parents on my website www.racheltuchman.com that helps guide the discussion and establish ground rules), safe and unsafe behaviors online and some of the dangerous content they may encounter and what to do in those situations.
2) Model responsible social media and digital behaviors. Be an example to them of how to use technology. This includes no tech times, not texting and driving, paying attention to who you follow and engage with online and being responsible with your online behavior. What and how do you share online? Would you want your kids to share in the same way? Kids notice our hypocrisy. We should be using social media and technology in the same way we would want our kids to.
3) Use technology together when possible. Technology should be a WE activity not a ME activity. Take interest in what they are interested in, both digital and non-digital.
Make sure you friend or follow your child on all social media outlets and that you have your child’s username and password for the first year. This is not about “privacy” rather it is about safety. When our kids are starting out with social media we must take a scaffolding approach in that we support, encourage and provide the structure for our kids to build the right skills with technology use. I have also previously discussed checking your teens phones and social media messages. See my blog for more on this as well. If you see any bullying online, show your child how to report it.
4) Be curious about how they use technology. Do not condemn or judge. How they use technology is a great way to learn about them.
5) TALK ABOUT EVERYTHING AND EARLY ON. Open, honest and non-judgmental dialogue is a must with our children. It begins when they are little. Tell your kids that no matter what happens in school, with friends, online, you will be there for them. Follow through on that.
6) Coach them. Everything in parenting is me and you and not me vs. you. Create tech rules together. It is not about parental control, it’s about safety and collaboration. Discuss privacy settings, protecting personal information online, how to interact online, what do if they see content that makes them feel uncomfortable etc. Discuss who they are connecting with online and how they use their time online.
7) Work with other parents to establish shared norms and practices to support healthy social media use: There are great initiatives that parents have created like WAIT UNTIL 8TH (waituntil8th.com) that encourages and supports parents to band together and agree to delay giving their kids access to smartphones until at least eighth grade. Consider gathering some of the parents in your child’s grade together (it doesn’t have to be everyone; this is not realistic or necessary. Contact the parents of your child’s friend group and agree together to delay phones for your young kids.
8) Report cyberbullying and online abuse and exploitation: Talk to your child about reporting options, and provide support, without judgement if they tell you that they are being harassed through text, email, online games or social media or they have been contacted by an adult (or peer) seeking or sharing private (or illicit) images or asking them to perform intimate acts.
9) Establish boundaries with tech and social media use: It is not realistic to tell our teens to completely disconnect from social media. To do this would mean to disconnect from peers. Yes, they could see each other in school but those texts, DM’s, snaps are a big part of how they interact. That being said, many teens have reported feeling tired of the pull to social media. They know the algorithm wants to keep them online and the force is strong and hard to fight against, especially with a still developing brain. Kids need their parents to help them set and hold boundaries to help them navigate social media in a healthy way. Keep phones out of bedrooms at night. Establish times where phones cannot be used like dinner time, family get togethers, social gatherings like bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings etc. (see my sample contract for more).
Lastly, while the focus of this article and advisory is on kids and teens, it is clear that many adults also have a problem with social media use. It has potential to harm us as well (which only emphasizes how much more we need to protect our kids who aren’t fully neurologically developed). I’d like to ask you to think about your own relationship with social media. How much time do you spend online? How do you feel while you are scrolling? How do you feel after? How does it impact your relationships, parenting, even your finances (those swipe ups and links make it easy to impulse buy)? For some of you, social media may be a really empowering and uplifting place, depending very much on the content you consume and what you share. We need to be conscious consumers and teach our kids to do the same.
As with all things with parenting, if we want our kids to hold certain values and engage (or not engage) in certain behaviors we need to be sure we are modelling and working on those behaviors ourselves. Our kids are watching and listening. Also, our job as parents is to lovingly and firmly set limits and boundaries for our kids. In the pre-teen and teen years (about 10 to 19 years old) our kids are undergoing a highly sensitive period of brain development where risk taking behaviors reach their peak, where well-being has its greatest fluctuations and mental health challenges such as depression typically emerge. You are not mean, too strict or uptight for creating necessary safeguards for your children. Be confident that you are doing the right thing when you establish these guidelines in your homes. Your kids will be better for it and, one day, they will be grateful for it.
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