Have you ever had a conversation with your child about how they feel when using their cell phones or social media? As adults, we have a point of reference of a time before cell phones and social media ruled the world. However, kids today have never known a world without cell phones and internet access. They are growing up with mobile devices not only in their homes, but also in their classrooms. This is their “normal.”
In May 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health. While there needs to be more research on the impact of social media, the Advisory states, “There are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.” We know that parenting in the digital age is more challenging.
According to a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly 70% of parents said parenting is now more difficult than it was 20 years ago, and they cited technology and social media as the top reasons why.
In today’s blog, we’re going to talk about the connections between social media use and mental health, actions we can take to make social media safer, and how to start having these safety conversations.
Addictive Design of Social Media
It’s important to remember not to blame youth because devices and social media were created to be addictive. This is Simon Sinek, an author and inspirational speaker. In the video below, Simon discusses the similarities between social media and drugs and alcohol, as well as how devices can be addictive.
A 2018 survey by Common Sense Media found nearly 3-in-4 teens believed technology companies manipulate users to spend more time on their devices. They’re designed that way. Think about how you feel when you see a notification on your phone. Do you immediately look at it? Social media platforms play videos automatically to try to keep you engaged and encourage you to watch the next video. How do you typically “refresh” your social media feed or scroll through posts? You swipe down on the screen—like how you pull down the lever on a slot machine—and you await your reward.
According to a longitudinal study of U.S. youth between ages 12 and 15, adolescents who spent more than 3 hours per day on social media faced double the risk of mental health problems—including anxiety and depression. Technology has become a way for youth to try to cope with increasing social anxiety and the effects of isolation. It’s important to acknowledge this when discussing technology. As Simon Sinek said in the video above, kids who experience significant stress are turning to a device instead of a person. Technology isn’t bad, but too much technology can be detrimental.
The majority of states across the country have recently filed a new lawsuit again Meta—the company that owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. The lawsuit claims Meta platforms “disturb sleep, fuel adverse mental health consequences, facilitate social comparison, cause anxiety, and fail to prevent bullying and harassment,” with its motive being to “maximize its financial gains.” It goes on to claim Meta conceals the ways in which their platforms “exploit and manipulate” youth. While Meta has denied the claims and this is in the early stages, it’s clear many believe these platforms harm vulnerable young users.
Social Pressures of the Digital Landscape
Social media has given everyone a platform to share their expressions, beliefs, abilities, and opinions. It helps us connect with the outside world, receive instant news updates, and get an inside look into the lives of fame and fortune. Social media can foster relationships, introduce people to new and creative ideas, or even ignite social movements. Kids are also forming their identities at an early age. On social media, the world is telling them how to feel, what to think of themselves, and what their identity should be. They are potentially giving up that power to strangers. It’s important to learn how to use social media in moderation.
The issue with social media is it’s an endless cycle. Youth can compare themselves to the idealized versions of people they see on social media. The constant pressure to keep up or project a positive view of their life can take its toll. Users on social media are very aware of how popular or unpopular they and their peers are on social media. These platforms quantify and display how many people “follow” you or “like” a picture or message you post.
It’s easy for adults to suggest kids not go on social media. Although 13 is the commonly required minimum age for social media platforms, a 2021 study by Common Sense Media found that nearly 40% of children ages 8-12 have used social media. There are many reasons why youth want to be on these platforms. You may have heard of the term FOMO or fear of missing out. When the majority of your peers are using social media to connect and interact, it’s understandable why youth want to use these platforms. Youth also use social media for entertainment and self-expression.
Taking Action to Make Social Media Safer
The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory highlights that “limits on the use of social media have resulted in mental health benefits for young adults and adults.” The scientific evidence gathered in the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory suggests that exposure to harmful content as well as excessive and problematic social media use can be detrimental to youth. One way parents and caregivers can help reduce these risks is by creating tech-free zones and times in the household.
Here are some examples:
- Keep devices away from the dinner table to help establish family time
- Require all devices to be charged in a public room (such as the kitchen or family room)
- Discourage having devices in bedrooms at night or after a designated time to help improve sleep quality
On our iRespect&Protect website, we have a Customizable Digital Media Contract you can fill out together based on your own family values. Developing a contract together as a family can help kids feel included as part of setting boundaries and expectations. One contract isn’t better than another. The main point of this practice is that modeling is the best contract, and it’s only as good as the relationship that binds it.
Although we may not always realize it, children pay attention to everything their parents do. Their relationship with devices can be influenced by their parents, caregivers, and other adults. It’s important to pay attention to our own behavior and how our habits impact our children, which means modeling the behavior we want in our children. Check out our Model This, Here’s Why tool for ways you can model healthy choices for children.
Children will not always be open about their emotions. We can go beyond “my door is always open.” It can be hard for children to be honest about their struggles, and it takes real courage to admit when something is wrong. Communicating early and often can help build closer relationships. You can establish a trusting bond by reminding your child every day how much you love them and you’ll be there for them no matter what. Enjoy the time you spend together and create space to have ongoing conversations—whether it’s going for a walk, during a long car ride, playing a game, or while making dinner. Make sure your child knows you’re there to listen without judgement or shame.
Try these statements:
- Do you want my advice, or would like me to just listen?
- You know I have this feeling that something is bothering you. I’m not sure if you want to talk to me about it, but if you do, I’d love to just listen.
Sometimes children might just want to vent. Listen to them. Allow your child to lead the conversation. Resist the natural urge to jump in and help. It builds trust and reminds the child that you are a safe person to talk to in times of need. You want them to feel like you are their go-to person.
Starting Safety Conversations
Based on the research, it’s clear that social media can have a significant impact on youth. Experts suggest that parents and caregivers should have conversations with their children about how to have a healthy media balance and positive relationship with technology. It can be helpful to begin these conversations even before youth are getting devices. Talk about the positives and negatives of social media. Have conversations about how it can be harmful compare themselves to the idealized versions of people they see on social media.
Consider using these conversation starters:
- What are the benefits of social media? What are the risks?
- How do you feel when you use social media?
- How do you think social media influences you?
- Have you ever taken a break from social media? Why or why not?
- What is one rule you would require everyone to follow on social media?
- What is an activity you enjoy doing together as a family?
One of the bravest things you can do to help those in our lives is to start a conversation—especially if you are noticing changes in their mental health, their behavior, or an increase in device use. However, you do not need to wait until you see changes, you can ask how they’re doing to just show that you care. A lot of good things can come from starting a conversation.
Cell Phones & Children, Best Practices
Wednesday, November 15th
6:00 – 7:30 PM
Teléfonos Celulares y Niños, Mejores Prácticas
Tuesday, November 16th
6:00 – 7:30 PM