06 Dec Social Media and Its Impact on Children’s Mental Health: Here’s What You Need to Know
For many parents, raising kids that have a healthy relationship with social media can be a challenge. Why? Because social media is ubiquitous. 4.48 billion people currently use social media worldwide, a number that has more than doubled from 2.07 billion users in 2015. As of 2020, children, teens and young adults average between 6.6 to 8.4 social media accounts, up an astounding 75% since 2014. Part of this is due to the vast availability of these accounts and the specialization of each platform. Instead of being able to use one social media account for everything, a person who wants to browse videos needs a YouTube account, while someone who is more interested in photos needs an Instagram profile.
Even more concerning, a landmark report released by Common Sense Media finds that teenagers use an average of nine hours of entertainment media per day, and tweens (ages 8-12), use it an average of six hours a day, not including time spent using digital media for school or homework. When it comes to social media alone, it is not uncommon for 13 year-olds check their accounts and texts a minimum of 100 times a day.
Among young people, the rates of anxiety and depression have skyrocketed over the past 25 years, increasing by 70 percent. Not coincidentally, the more we learn about social media and device use, the more negative conclusions we’re drawing about its impact on our mental health. This is especially apparent in children and young adults, since their development is still ongoing, putting them at greater risk for negative outcomes that are pervasive with social media use.
By educating ourselves about the role social media has on our children, we’ll be better equipped to help them have a more positive relationship with it, allowing them to reap the benefits without getting caught in a spiral of negative consequences.
The Impacts of Social Media on Mental Health
In recent years, there have been several studies conducted about social media and the impact it has on mental health. Instagram was found to have the most negative overall effect on young people’s mental health. While the positive effects of Instagram include self-expression, self-identity, community building, and emotional support, the popular photo sharing app negatively impacts body image and sleep, and increases bullying and “FOMO” (fear of missing out), leading to greater feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Facebook was found to have similar negative effects as Instagram in the categories of bullying, FOMO, body image, anxiety, depression, and loneliness, and has a particularly negative impact on sleep.
The overall consensus from these studies is that social media has a “detrimental effect on the psychological health of its users.” Studies have found that teenagers and young adults who use social media have a 13% to 66% increase in rates of reported depression, contributing to many teens’ feelings of perceived isolation.
Of note, depression and anxiety were the two most common measurable outcomes from studies, regardless of whether the subjects of the studies were children, adolescents, or adults. However, there are particular dangers inherent to children who use social media. Here are some of the most common ones.
Less Familiarity with Social Cues
Children socializing one-on-one and in groups is a critical aspect of development as they grow and mature. During this time, they become more attuned to the verbal and non-verbal cues of their peers and this experience helps them develop better social skills.
If children do most of their socializing online where there are no social skills to react to and interpret, this can inhibit their growth with respect to social cues and make them less comfortable socializing in person–issues that can follow them into adulthood and impact their personal relationships and employment opportunities.
As children spend more of their time online, it becomes easier to post messages and comments that they would never say to someone in person. This can lead to cyberbullying, which is just as hurtful and damaging as face-to-face bullying. Often, bullying and cyberbullying happen to the same children, who are victimized both in school and online.
Research has shown that roughly 1 out of every 4 teens experiences cyberbullying, and 1 out of every 6 teens admits to doing it to others. These incidents can lead to low self-esteem and other real-world issues like antisocial behavior, and substance use, and suicide.
The Endless Comparison
Another aspect of social media that can easily lead to low self-esteem and poorer mental health is the continual comparison to others. Many people use their social media accounts to present a glorified view of their life, and tools like filters only make this worse. A survey conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health asked people ages 14 to 24 how social media affects them. “Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all led to increased feelings of depression, anxiety, poor body image and loneliness,” according to the survey.
Additionally, when children scroll through social media and they’re faced with an endless feed of their friends being successful and well-liked, it can add to the pressure they perceive to look, feel, and act a certain way. This can lead to them concealing their true feelings in order to present a better image both in-person and online.
How to Help Your Child Have a Healthier Relationship with Social Media
As a parent, you can monitor your child’s device use, check in with them about their online activities, and educate them about digital safety and etiquette. After all, children will tend to follow your example and they can learn a lot from your own behavior.
We can always change the way we handle social media and we can help our children do the same. Here are some ideas that can help your child exert more control over their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in response to social media.
Build a strong base of what daily life is really like. One of the most problematic things about social media is that it presents an idealized version of daily life. When children are young, it can be hard for them to separate fiction from reality. Parents can help them do this by pointing out when social media is being idealistic or unrealistic. Over time, this will help kids learn how to think more critically themselves.
Encourage your children to follow accounts that make them feel good about themselves. There are a few questions you can ask your children to help them determine whether a social media account or “friend” is a healthy one for them to follow.
- Do they share helpful resources, information or tips?
- Do they share material that brings you joy?
- Do they help you engage with the real world and feel more excited by opportunities and events?
- Does a “friend” make you feel good about yourself?
- What positive things come from following a “friend” or social media account?
By introducing these questions to your children and helping them sort through their social media accounts using these criteria, you can encourage them to make their newsfeeds and homepages a healthier and more welcoming place. Encourage your child to unfollow people and pages that don’t make them feel good about themselves
Take time off. Taking time away from social media to spend more time with family and friends is always beneficial for kids. Taking a few days or even a week off every month is a valuable way for kids to lessen the negative impacts of social media and put it in perspective. Kids who were surveyed after taking a break from social media widely reported feeling better after the experience. Have your child try a social media detox and encourage them to journal about their experience daily, noting the effect the break has on their mood, any withdrawal symptoms they are feeling about being off social media, and how they spend their newly found free time.
Help them reflect on how social media makes them feel. When children are mindlessly scrolling social media feeds, it often doesn’t occur to them how their mental health is being impacted by what they see. As a parent, you can help them reflect on how social media affects them by asking questions about their thoughts and feelings before and after spending time online. This knowledge can help them become more mindful and allow them to make healthier decisions about their social media use moving forward.
Set up a social media contract with your kids. Children need boundaries. And a social media contract is a great way to trigger a discussion and establish those boundaries, as a family. A formalized, signed agreement allows you to have positive discussions about social media, ensures you’ve covered all of your bases, and everyone in the family on the same page. Keep the contract somewhere visible, like the fridge, and refer back to it to remind your children about the commitments they made when they first signed it. There are a lot of great social media contracts out there, but one of my favorites is the Family Social Standards Contract from The Social Institute.
Addressing Your Child’s Mental Health
Unchecked social media use can have negative consequences on children’s mental health, so it’s critical that parents and caregivers address this when they see it happening. Using the suggestions above to help your child have a healthier relationship with social media is a great place to start.
Parents can also guide their children towards different hobbies and interests, and seek help from a therapist or mental health clinician, if necessary. While reducing screen time is a great way to combat problematic social media use, a therapist can identify potential mental health concerns (like addiction) that can be cared for at a professional level.
Looking for more information on how to help your child manage social media effectively? Check out this list of helpful resources.