The world can be a lonely place without a cellphone. So lonely that some kids have trouble being by themselves or connecting with the world without a screen and touch pad.
“With most teens, you can’t separate them from their phones,” said Dr. Sumru Bilge-Johnson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Akron Children’s Hospital. “Children and teens, especially those born after 2000, do not know what to do without them.”
Mental health experts are increasingly concerned about teens obsessed with social media, who pour excessive time and emotional energy into obtaining social connections, self-worth and validation on social platforms.
“Social media is addictive. Teens post selfies, share information and measure self-worth by how they look and how many likes they get, to find a place in this new superficial world,” Dr. Bilge-Johnson said.
“This is their social connection to their peers and to the world. While they obtain a big sense of self-worth, they also place themselves in a vulnerable position for negative comments that can change their self-worth dramatically. Sometimes without that social connection, validation and support, they don’t know what to do with themselves and their loneliness.”
Half of teens said in a survey last year that they felt addicted to their phones, according to the nonprofit Common Sense Media. Six in 10 parents believed their teens were addicted to their phones, and 27 percent of parents said they, too, were addicted.
Many parents and kids reported that phone use is a common source of arguments. And 77 percent of parents and 41 percent of teens said the other is often distracted by their devices and don’t pay attention to them.
It’s important for many reasons that parents need to set an example and set limits on their kids’ social media/electronics use, Dr. Bilge-Johnson said. For one, it’s healthy for teens to become confident and competent without dependency on social media. They can develop a real, strong self-worth by having other meaningful activities, accomplishments and live social connections that don’t revolve around social media.
Experts have warned for years that children and teens are absorbed in unhealthy amounts of screen time, and that parents tend not to set limits on the amount of time their kids spend on screens.
“We want to give teens freedom so they can become independent and confident. However, we have left them alone with screens for so long we are paying the price with things like addiction to social media, video games and YouTube, cyberbullying, victimization and sexting,” Dr. Bilge-Johnson said.
She urges parents to guide kids to interests, hobbies and a social life outside of social networks. Activities such as volunteering, arts and sports can foster a sense of validation and self-worth.
Also, talk to them about the superficiality of social media. It may be obvious to many adults that social media is not real life, but your teen may not make a distinction. Remind kids that heavy self-promoters often look like winners on social media, but that isn’t reality.
Some research with college students and adults has drawn a connection between heavy Twitter use and narcissistic traits. “There is not enough evidence that social media is causing people to become more narcissistic,” Dr. Bilge-Johnson said, “but there is a relationship in that people with narcissistic personality traits now have a big platform.”
She believes social media has several positive aspects for teens. But child mental health experts are concerned about the long-term impact on children and teens that are consumed with it. “Social media has changed our culture more than anything else that I know of,” she said. “Studies are slowly coming out to tell us what it all means.”