Almost every day, a new story about kids and screen time is published, many of which make definitive statements in their headlines: NBC wrote, “Social media linked to rise in mental health” and Psychology Today claimed, “Screen time is making kids moody, crazy, and lazy”.
But the correlation between social media and mental health is much more complex than these headlines make it out to be. Depressive symptoms, for example, have increased significantly among tweens and young adults — but researchers are starting to question whether using social media causes depression or if teens with depression are likely to spend more time on social media.
With so many extreme news stories circulating day after day, it can be hard to decipher how dangerous social media really is. And it only gets more complicated when we consider that technology has its merits, such as helping us to maintain relationships with friends and family. So what do parents need to know about social media and mental health? Let’s take a closer look at this complicated relationship, and how it might impact our kids.
Understanding the effects of social media
Several connections have been drawn between social media and mental health. Some psychologists say societal pressures and lack of community support, which can sometimes be emphasized online, lead to depression. Others point their fingers at apps like Facebook and Instagram, which can be dangerous because of how they impact children’s body image and self-esteem. Many experts also speak to the risks of being exposed to cyberbullying and inappropriate content, both of which can have long-term effects on kids’ happiness.
In addition to these psychological contributors, parents also need to be aware of the physical consequences of using social media and how they might affect kids’ mental health. A survey by the Pew Research Center revealed the majority of teens (95%) own or have access to a smartphone and 45% admit to being “online constantly”, which could mean their wellbeing is at risk due to sleep deprivation. Rest is crucial to development and brain health, and not sleeping well has been shown to affect memory, concentration, and motivation, as well as lead to moodiness and depression.
Talking to your kids about mental health
Asking kids to talk about their wellbeing isn’t always easy, but there are some signs that parents can look out for. Mood swings, concentration problems, apathy, nervousness, and other unusual behavior are all signs that kids might need someone to talk to. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, try to open a line of communication with a simple question like, “How do you feel?”
Of course, kids and teens aren’t always open books. If you’re having trouble getting them to open up about their feelings and online activity, Dr. Seth Meyers suggests that parents should share their own negative experiences, such as being jealous when a person shares travel photos on Instagram. Identifying what makes you feel a certain way, and then explaining how things might be distorted on social media can help kids understand and cope with their own anxieties.
The goal isn’t to ensure that children are happy all the time (an unrealistic expectation at any age), but to give them the tools to recognize and communicate their own feelings. “The most important lesson is to teach your kids the basics about relationships and self-esteem,” writes Meyers. “By trying to engage your child and guide their emotional development, you are being a conscious parent and showing them that…you actually care about how they feel.”
Supporting each other online
Depending on how children are taught to engage on social media, these platforms can be helpful or hurtful.
Social media can be a source of support and reduce mental health stigma; on the other hand, it can also harm children who are already at risk. But the same can be said about TV, books and peers, which also have the ability to affect kids’ mental health.
The good news is that our collective attitude is evolving. Parents, teachers, families, and organizations are more open than ever to having conversations about mental health, and provide plenty of resources that can help. If we work hard to create loving and safe online spaces for kids, technology — including connection-based platforms — can continue to enhance our children’s development in a positive way.
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