Protecting Mental Health of Youth Using Social Media
There have been multiple studies and reports that suggest social media has a negative impact on the mental health of youth, including poor self-ratings of mental health, increased levels of psychological distress, and suicidal ideation. But those ideas were solidified for many parents when former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen, recently testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee that internal company research highlighted the damaging effects Facebook and Instagram have on younger users.
“Teenagers don’t have good self-regulation,” Haugen said. “They say explicitly, ‘I feel bad when I use Instagram and I can’t stop.’ We need to protect the kids.”
As a parent, it’s hard to know what the right thing to do is. We don’t want to be too strict with our teens so that they feel left out or rebel against us, but we also want to protect them from harm. Below are some ideas for how parents can handle the delicate balancing act of protecting our children from social media’s negative effects.
Delay social media use.
Don’t allow children to have their own social media accounts until at least 13. Research shows that the earlier children start using social media, the greater the impact the platforms have on their mental health. Try to delay their start for as long as you can. When you decide to allow your children to obtain an account, ease them in at first by showing them how social media works through your own accounts. On your personal device, look up Instagram posts or TikTok dances together. Use it to have fun together and enjoy the positives of social media. But also point out where you see dark sides to the apps. Note where you see bullying or risky behaviors. Discuss the risks of these apps with them so that they can see the concerns. Allow them to observe you using the apps responsibly. This “easing in” process where you use social media together before your child gets their own account should last several months.
Begin slowly and be aware of their communities.
Once children turn 13, don’t just hand them a bunch of social media accounts and let them go. You want to build skills slowly. One option is to let them install one social media service at a time and let them start with a small following, such as only family members or close friends. Monitor how this goes, and if all is well, allow them to either expand their following or get another social media account. If they’re into a specific community, such as those centered on makeup tutorials, skating or dances, make sure you’re also aware of what happens in those circles. Ask them to show you around and follow some on your own accounts so that you can discuss anything that sends negative messages.
Share the research.
Educate your children about the mental health effects of social media by reading the research together. Talk about the benefits of social media and some of the potential downsides. All teens are different. While some might struggle with the culture of comparison on Instagram, others might not be as affected. Ask them how they see social media accounts affecting their peers at school. Discuss signs of mental health distress, so that they can recognize when they might be struggling. It’s important to educate them, rather than just create restrictions, because you won’t have control of their phone forever, and we want them to make positive decisions for themselves, now and in the future.
Don’t depend on tech tools.
Parental control apps give parents the tools to shut down social media and other apps at specific times and monitor every text, comment, and post on the phone, but relying solely on these tools breaks down trust and can result in power struggles. Try to prioritize mentoring your children in positive social media use over monitoring their every move or trying to catch them in a mistake.
Find the positives.
Encourage your teen to use social media to connect with people who inspire them, share similar interests, or provide a sense of belonging. If we teach our youth to prioritize using social media as a positive space for staying connected, then they will be more likely to filter out accounts, people, groups, and conversations that bring us down.
Avoid the negatives.
Teens can easily get in a comparison trap on social media, focusing on how many likes their post received, how many times a friend tags them, or how often their posts get comments. Let your teen know that these types of comparisons are very unhealthy and will make them feel bad. Keep reminding them to not keep score on likes and tags and to not exclude or bully other people online.
Teach children to make changes if they experience negative emotions.
Social media can influence our mood, anxiety levels and self-esteem. Because our use of social media becomes habitual, we often forget that we can control how we use it. Teach your teen to pay attention to how their online content is making them feel. Does reading the news make them feel informed or stressed? Does seeing photos of their friends at a party make them feel good or envious? Empower your teen to make changes in their usage if they notice a trend of negative emotions. For example, if certain people’s posts make them feel negative about themselves in any way, then it’s totally okay to hit the “unfollow” button.
Keep talking offline about online.
Talk to your kids daily about what they’re up to online. Make it part of your family’s normal conversation. At the dinner table, you might mention something negative and/or positive you saw on your account, and ask them to share what they’re seeing online. Give them a place to work through what they’re observing, help them understand what is real or not, and teach them how to view everything on social media — including the companies themselves — with a critical eye.
Encourage other interests.
One of the best ways parents can combat the negative impacts of social media is to plan activities that make your children forget about their phone! Do other fun things together – go shopping, hike outside, play sports, go to the movies, visit with friends, grab an ice cream cone. Taking a break from social media gives us a lot of perspective and a much needed mental health break.