Jenkins, MD, is Medical Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Services and Clinical Director of the Pediatric Outreach Liaison Service at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine. She lives in North County.
Whether you’ve seen the headlines on social media taking a toll on youth mental health or watched your own kids typing on their favorite apps for hours on end, it’s tempting to say that teens shouldn’t be able to use social media at all. . As a child psychiatrist, I am convinced that social media should not be used by those under 13, and technically current platforms do not allow it (although we all know that these restrictions are far from up to date. ‘test of children). However, given how deeply communicating and connecting with friends has taken root in the digital world, the idea of asking teens not to use social media in any capacity just isn’t possible.
With this modern reality, what should a parent do to make social media safer for their children?
In my work, I know all too well the links between social media and youth cyberbullying, depression, anxiety and suicide. I have listened to children tell how online bullying led to a suicide attempt – stories made worse by the fact that more often than not their parents were completely unaware of it.
With photo filters and editors and the ability to organize a seemingly perfect life for its followers, social media emphasizes the push for perfection and a culture of comparison. This can lead to decreased self-esteem and body image issues, especially for teenage girls, and one-click access to conversations with strangers exposes teens to harassment and intimidation from their peers and predators. The effects are particularly strong on young people already struggling with their mental health, as they are more likely to be misused and negatively influenced by social media.
As such, increasing rates of depression and anxiety have been linked to increased use of social media. Given that the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that teens spend an average of nine hours online per day (and that’s outside of schoolwork), it’s no surprise that social media use is also linked to a poor quality of sleep. Sleep loss can have a profound effect on mental and physical well-being in itself.
When you observe your child’s daily habits, the following signs may indicate a problem:
Spend long periods of time on social media.
Become irritable when limits are placed on the use of social media.
Refuse opportunities to socialize in person on social media.
Getting into trouble at school or at work for using social media.
Spend time creating social media content in a way that affects school activities or performance.
Being concerned about documenting moments on social media at the expense of having the best real-life experience.
But all is not bad. For children living in remote areas or for those who identify with a minority group, social media allows connection with like-minded peers, which can be very positive and empowering. It allows exposure to ideas, creativity and people that a teenager doesn’t normally meet, and most importantly, it can also be a place to find support and ask for help.
I think using social media in a positive way is a skill that needs to be learned, and for young users it can be difficult to create accounts to capitalize on these positives and not fall victim to algorithms designed to promote longer time on the app – and, apparently, more time logged in to potentially dangerous content.
However, when your teen starts spending time on social media, the following guidelines can help you establish healthy boundaries with them:
Limit social media use to daytime hours and keep phones or devices away at night to avoid interference with a good night’s sleep.
Have an open discussion with your child on social media. What platforms do they use? Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube are the most common, but new platforms are steadily being developed.
Appropriate use of the model. Monitor your own social media consumption and the time you spend on your phone in front of your kids.
Learn more about parental controls. There are ways to limit ads and the amount of time that can be spent on apps.
Set the accounts to private.
Suggest that they follow positive role models, such as scientists, activists, and leaders. Making sure that more inspiring or uplifting content ends up in your teen’s streams can help dilute the negative.
Education about social media and online safety should be part of the school curriculum from an early age, and social media companies need to put more safeguards in place to help protect our children. But as we wait for progress in these crucial areas – and even after they are achieved – socialization begins safely and is best applied at home.