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Mental Health & Social Media Use: What Parents Can Do

Like it or not, social media is here to stay. There are some good things about it, like being connected and sharing ideas. But there are dangers too that can lead users to have low self-esteem, a poor body image, anxiety, and depression.

The key is to find a balance. Parents can teach kids to be more mindful about social media, spend less time on it, and help protect their mental health. Here’s how.

Prepare Your Child and Yourself

See if your child is ready and set limits. It can be tempting to protect kids too much and not let them on social media at all. But if you don’t allow them to be a part of it, they could feel left out. Consider their age, health, and personality. Social media sites usually require kids to be at least 13 before they can have their own accounts.

Before giving kids access, it’s important to set rules, like what apps they can use and how often. Figure out what limits work best to keep social media from interfering with schoolwork, chores, physical activity, and sleep. You can start by letting your child text with friends. See how things go before letting them use other apps.

Use parent-control tools. Many internet service providers (ISPs) have parent-control options. You also can get software that blocks access to sites and limits personal information from being sent online. Other programs can monitor and track online activity.

Respect their feelings. Kids have grown up with social media and don't know a world without it. Whether someone comments or likes a photo may not mean much to you, but it probably does to them. Don’t dismiss their concerns. Show that you care and are interested.

Look Closely at What's Online

Talk about fantasy vs. reality. Many teens are self-conscious about how they look, and seeing lots of “ideal” pictures online can make them feel worse. This could make conditions like anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) harder to deal with.

Look at some “perfect” photos together. Show that things like lighting, angles, filters (tools that can change the look of images), and photo editing apps can make people appear different than they do in real life. Some artificial intelligence (AI) software can create pictures simply based on text people enter. This makes it even tougher to know what’s real.

Try using a photo editing app or AI with your child to see how much images can be changed.

Explain that it’s not a contest. People often share pictures and stories just showing the good times and get a lot of positive comments. That can make kids feel left out or like they don’t measure up.

Talk about how boring and sad things happen to friends, influencers, celebrities, and everyone else. They don’t always share it. But it’s OK to show the not-so-perfect times. Sometimes people can relate to those a lot more.

You can also explain that many people delete posts and photos that don’t have a lot of “likes” to look more popular. Encourage kids to unfollow accounts that make them feel bad.

Think about the source. Many people say or do things online just for attention. But the information they’re spreading could be wrong or even dangerous.

Talk to your kids about safe sources. Tell them that someone simply voicing an opinion isn’t reliable. Encourage them to check with you about advice, products, and even stunts that interest them. You can research them together on sites you can trust, like Common Sense Media. You can also talk with their doctor.

Look at the tricks companies use. There’s a whole science for getting people addicted to social media. In fact, some U.S. states are suing social media companies for being misleading about possible harm.

Companies track what your child looks at, then show targeted ads, articles, and posts related to the content. The endless scrolling feature means kids never reach the end of a page. Seeing where people are with location sharing could make kids feel left out. And alerts that keep popping up encourage them to check their device over and over.

Teach kids to pay more attention to what they’re looking at and why. They can break the cycle of going down online “rabbit holes” (deep dives into topics) by setting up reminders to put their device away for a time.

Take Breaks From Social Media

Set a good example. If your kids see you checking your phone all day, they might think that’s OK for them too. Limit your own device use, mainly when you're with your kids. Turn off or silence your phone and other devices when you’re not using them and during family times, like meals.

Think about having the whole family take breaks from social media. You could even make it a game and have rewards when they stay off sites for a time.

Turn off devices at least 1 hour before bedtime. Kids can tell their friends that they have to sign off at a certain time. Store devices in your bedroom overnight to charge so your child won’t be tempted to use them late at night.

Encourage kids to have a variety of free-time activities, like spending time with friends, being part of clubs, and playing sports. Do things together as a family, like playing games and volunteering. Try to get your child to be active each day and get enough sleep. These can all help develop a healthy body and mind.

Check in With Your Kids

Talk with your child often. Make sure your kids feel that they can turn to you when they have problems online. Have chats about what they see on their devices, and share your own beliefs and values. You can ask questions like:

  • “Why do you think people post photos?”
  • “Why does getting a ‘like’ matter to you?”
  • “How do you feel after going on social media?”
  • “What do you think would happen if you didn’t go on it for an hour or a whole day?”

Also ask how they’re doing overall. Help kids feel confident and tell them you’re proud of them. This helps them feel supported and loved.

Look for warning signs. It’s also important to watch for signs that your child is struggling, like being upset or withdrawn after being on social media. Young people with mental health problems — like anxiety, depression, or insomnia (trouble sleeping) — are more likely to have suicidal thoughts.

If your child talks about feeling hopeless or guilty, or mentions suicide or not being around anymore, talk with their doctor right away.

Reviewed by: Leah J. Orchinik, PhD
Date Reviewed: Mar 12, 2024

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