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Is Social Media Wrecking Our Kids’ Mental Health? What Parents Need to Know

Warnings about the impact of social media on kids are flying at us from all directions lately, it seems. First it was the American Psychological Association, who recommended new guidelines on social media use for kids in early May. Most recently, it’s U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, who just today issued a major advisory on the effects of social media on youth mental health.

As a parent of three teens and a tween myself, I’ll be the first to admit that screen time has practically been my parenting partner throughout the years. Who among us hasn’t enjoyed a few precious moments of peace while our kids occupied themselves with a tablet or a phone? When social media use entered the chat, it felt like a natural extension of my kids’ screen usage; what they were looking at — and interested in — on the screens evolved as they grew. But with broader use of the internet comes greater responsibility for us as parents, and as much as I’d love to just be able to give them unfettered access to the world via their screens and walk away, it can’t happen that way. And I don’t know about you, but the recent releases from the APA and the Surgeon General’s office make me feel like it’s time to step up my parental involvement even more where my kids’ social media use is concerned.

“The most common question parents ask me is, ‘is social media safe for my kids?’. The answer is that we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health,” Dr. Murthy said in his May 23rd statement. “Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content, to bullying and harassment. And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends. We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis — one that we must urgently address.” He called on not only parents, but policymakers and tech companies, to take steps to make social media safer for kids.

While the APA’s statement didn’t seem quite as damning of social media as a whole, it did warn of the impacts of social media use on brains that are still developing, and therefore vulnerable. “Adolescent brain development generally starts before puberty, around age 10, and lasts through early adulthood,” reads the statement. “This is an important phase of growth during which the brain undergoes dramatic developmental changes. In early adolescence, brain regions associated with a desire for attention from peers become increasingly sensitive. Social media may exploit that desire. Meanwhile, brain areas important for self-control don’t fully develop until early adulthood. When thinking about the use of social media in your family, it’s important to recognize the unique vulnerabilities of adolescent brains. Your guidelines around social media use should evolve as children mature.”

I spoke with Ariana Hoet, Ph.D., executive clinical director of On Our Sleeves — an organization at the forefront of the movement for children’s mental health — to get her professional take on kids and social media. Because boy, could I use some practical advice on how to regulate and monitor my kids’ social media. How do we keep our kids safe online and protect their mental health while still allowing them to reap the benefits that they can get from social media? It’s a fine line to walk.

“It’s interesting because social media is meant to connect. And when used appropriately, it does help with connections,” Dr. Hoet tells SheKnows. “But for some kids, it leads to more isolation, or it leads to social comparison, and an over-focus on what others think about them and peer pressure and peer opinion.”

Echoing the APA’s recent recommendations, Dr. Hoet says that we really have to take an individual approach. There are so many factors — age, maturity level, even time spent on other things like extracurricular activities — that dictate how much social media use is healthy for kids. “We have to think about each child as an individual, and their environment,” she explained.

It’s Not Just What Kids Are Doing — It’s What They’re Not Doing

This revelation nearly blew me out of my chair, but it was a point that I — and all parents — need to remember. We’re often so busy worrying about what our kids are doing on social media that we don’t step back to look at the bigger picture — what are they not doing because of their social media use? If it’s getting in the way of real-life interactions with friends, of extracurricular activities they used to love, that’s when it becomes a problem.

“If a child is at school all day, then they’re in an after-school activity for a few hours, and then they come home and do their homework, and then they want to sit and be on their social media — and we know they’re using it safely — I’m not worried,” says Dr. Hoet. “They’ve done their activities. Let them spend time playing their video game or scrolling TikTok. It’s those kids that aren’t doing those other activities that I worry about.”

So What Do You Do If Your Child’s Social Media Use Feels Excessive?

According to the APA, parents can use the following guidelines to determine whether their child’s social media use is problematic. It could be an issue if …

  • It interferes with school, work, friendships, and extracurriculars.
  • They have a tendency to choose social media above actual in-person social interactions.
  • It prevents them from getting adequate (at least 8 hours), quality sleep.
  • It keeps them from participating in regular physical activity.
  • They consistently use social media even when they’ve expressed a desire to stop.
  • They experience strong compulsions to check their social media.
  • They lie, or act deceptive, in order to spend time online.

“If we’re not at an extreme crisis concern level, I always say small changes are the best way to get long lasting outcomes,” advises Dr. Hoet. “Let’s say my child is spending eight hours a day on social media. Maybe we implement a plan where we’re going to bring that down to seven hours. And then after a few days, we bring that down to six hours and try to slowly decrease the time while adding the other activities.” Establish what your child is going to be doing if they’re not on social media, and create a routine that supports those opportunities for offline activities.

“If we’re at a place where we’re really, really worried about their mental health, parents may have to intervene more quickly and take things away, if necessary, to keep them safe — and look for professional help, of course,” Dr. Hoet says. “But if it’s more of a prevention, then I always say make those small changes with them.”

How Can We Limit Kids’ Social Media Time When We’re Addicted to it Ourselves?

I’m chained to my smartphone as much as anyone else — after all, I’ve found some of my favorite go-to family recipes on TikTok. So even though I know I’m an adult, using it safely, I can’t help but feel like a hypocrite telling my kids to spend less time on their devices. But you know the old saying: what’s good for the goose is good for the gander (or, in this case, the goslings?) — which is why experts recommend creating a “family plan” for social media use.

“Agreed-upon expectations can help establish healthy technology boundaries at home,” the Surgeon General’s advisory says. “A family media plan can promote open family discussion and rules about media use and include topics such as balancing screen/online time, content boundaries, and not disclosing
personal information.”

Dr. Hoet concurs, telling SheKnows that it’s important to set clearly-defined expectations not just for the child, but for the whole family. “You can talk about what social media platforms are you’re going to use. Who do you follow? What do you post? And then most importantly, when are the screen-free times? What are other activities you’re doing? Who do you go to if you’re worried about something?” she says. “You also need to establish the consequences: what happens if these rules are broken?”

On Our Sleeves/YouTube

On Our Sleeves has a free template for a family social media plan that you can download here.

Create Tech-Free Zones and Times

As with everything else in life, balance is key. The AAP, the Surgeon General, and many other experts — including Dr. Hoet — all recommend that there are certain events or times of day when phones and tablets should be off the table, quite literally.

“Consider keeping family mealtimes and in-person gatherings device-free to build social bonds and engage in a two-way conversation,” says the Surgeon General. And since scrolling can interfere with quality shut-eye, also consider putting the screens away — as a family — about an hour before bedtime.

Dr. Hoet gives an example of collectively powering down devices at 8pm each evening: “We all have a charging station in the kitchen … and that means everyone puts their phone on the charging station in the kitchen,” she says.

The Best Preventive Measure: Connecting With Your Kids

When it comes to keeping a healthy relationship with our children, our primary job as parents is to set rules and boundaries to keep them safe — even though it’s hard to feel like we’ve got to be the bad guy sometimes. But equally important, says Dr. Hoet? Listening.

“We have to understand where [our kids are] coming from, and have conversations where we listen, and not just expect them to listen to us,” she points out. “And a lot of the times the frustration after rules and boundaries is because whatever we’re saying makes them different — they don’t have access to social media, but all their friends do. And that’s how friends are making plans and connecting, especially over the summer weekends, times when they’re not seeing each other every day.” That can make kids feel excluded or left out, so this is where open dialogue and compromise comes in handy; explain your standpoint, but if there’s an issue surrounding social media use that’s genuinely bothering your child, find a way to work around it that you can both live with.

“What’s really important is staying involved so that we don’t just give access and walk away, but also having those daily check-ins,” advises Dr. Hoet. “Not just about social media, but life in general; just practicing the habit of conversation, and reminding them that you’re there if there’s ever a concern … [so] you can help them problem solve and intervene early. We cannot protect our children from the stress of the world. But we know that one of the best protective factors is that relationship that they have with you. So while stress may happen, or bullying may happen, if they have that healthy relationship with you, it helps them get through it with their mental health intact.”

And If They’re Less Inclined to Listen to You …

Every parent of tweens and teens has been there: you repeatedly give your kid advice that they blatantly ignore, but then when a friend or a pop culture idol or a random YouTuber or TikTok-er says the same thing, it’s suddenly valuable info. If this is a familiar scenario, send your kid this link — it’s an insightful tip sheet on social media use and mental health, written by social-media-using kids, for social-media-using kids.

Remember: Social Media Isn’t All Bad

Despite our panicked, knee-jerk reactions as parents when we hear these warnings, it’s important to keep in mind that social media isn’t the enemy; it can provide value to kids’ lives and social connections, too. We don’t need to go yanking our kids phones out from beneath their scrolling thumbs — we just need to re-evaluate our families’ priorities and habits when it comes to social media use, which is good advice anyway … warnings or no warnings.

These celebrity parents have gotten honest about their rules when it comes to technology.

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