Social media is a big part of just about every teenager’s social life. It’s estimated 92 percent of teens in this country are active on at least one social media platform, such as YouTube, TikTok or SnapChat, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Social media influences youth in a variety of ways — for better or worse. While many studies have shown a connection between social media and adolescent depression and anxiety, Laura Markley, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and pediatrician in Akron Children’s Lois and John Orr Family Behavioral Health Center, believes social networking can positively impact kids.
“When social media is used in moderation and appropriately supervised by parents, it has the potential to enhance social connections among youth,” she said. “It can create a sense of connection and belonging among peers, expand their community and expose kids to diversity.”
Social media helps kids stay in touch with peers long after the school bell rings and family members that live far away. In addition, kids can learn more about their interests and build supportive communities with others who identify the same way as them.
“When teens feel connected, it can diminish feelings of social isolation, which has been linked to increasing mental health challenges,” said Dr. Markley.
So, how can parents ensure social media is improving their child’s mental health, instead of harming it? Recent research suggests it all comes down to moderation, balancing digital vs. in-person interactions and using social media in a healthy, positive way.
“Social media can expose kids to bullies and negative influences, in addition to communities that encourage inappropriate or unsafe behaviors that can perpetuate negative thoughts or feelings, especially for teens already struggling with mental health,” said Dr. Markley. “The challenge is educating and supporting kids to create an algorithm of healthy social support, safeguard their personal information, recognize negative influences and when to block them, and make good choices when accepting friend requests.”
Helping kids build healthy relationships with social media
As parents, you can guide your kids toward healthy social media habits by keeping an open, honest and ongoing dialogue about their social media use and serving as a positive role model through your own social media habits.
You also can teach kids healthy social networking habits by:
- Limiting recreational screen time and ensuring kids maintain a healthy balance between social media and other important in-person activities.
- Establishing family rules and boundaries around social media use, such as Internet privacy and safety (i.e., disabling location services), parental monitoring, screen-free zones and exercising kindness and empathy in all interactions.
- Disabling Wi-Fi during the sleeping hours to encourage healthy sleep habits.
- Limiting access to certain platforms, especially for children under age 13.
- Participating and following your kids — and their friends — on the platforms they’re using to see what’s being posted and what information they’re exposed to.
Signs of unhealthy relationships with social media
Teens are resourceful and secretive, so even if you’re monitoring their online participation, you may miss some interactions.
If you notice any of the following behaviors, it could be a sign your teen is struggling with social media or using it in a negative way:
- Extreme mood swings or a negative demeanor during or after being on the phone or participating in social media.
- Becomes less engaged at home or isolates from friends and family.
- Increased fatigue and falling grades due to social media use interrupting proper diet, sleep habits and academic responsibilities.
- Your teen’s only social outlet is online and is constantly itching to get back on a device.
- Becomes secretive about social media use or gets angry or defensive when concerns are expressed.
- Talks negatively about social media or doesn’t have anything positive to say about their online interactions.
“With social media — and really any activity — having appropriate guidance available and exercising moderation are key to having a healthy, positive experience, while maintaining balance in life,” said Dr. Markley.
If you think your child is struggling significantly with social media, talk to one of our pediatricians. If necessary, they can refer your child to Akron Children’s Lois and John Orr Family Behavioral Health Center for mental health services.