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Helping Your Teen Explore a Healthy Relationship with Social Media

Teens in this age have an intricate network of information and social connection at their disposal, adding complexity to their lives that didn’t exist even 10 years ago. Many parents feel alienated by their adolescent’s social media habits. It’s difficult to ask your kid about their day and hear a short “fine” or “good”. Maybe their mouths are moving, but their eyes are glued to a screen. What do we do when we have no idea what our kids are doing on their devices for hours every day?

As adults, the willpower to sign off can be difficult- particularly in times where our friends are busy (or quarantining!) and social media provides a manageable and safe way to connect. And for our children, possessing the self-control to log off can be more challenging, even problematic.

What’s your role as a parent when your teen’s online so often? Like us, teens use social media to connect with their peers. But sometimes, a young person’s relationship with their phone can take an unhealthy, even dangerous turn. In the face of increasingly widespread screen addiction, one question that parents repeatedly ask us is, “what do I do about my teen’s use of social media?” The clinical team at Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness treats this issue (along with many more), and in this post, we’ll provide insight to the harms and benefits of social media on teens along with some tips for helping them relate to their screens in a healthy way.

Is social media good or bad for our kids?

The answer is that it can be both.

Most teens use social media. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey of nearly 750 13- to 17-year-olds found that 97% of them use a social media platform, such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat and that 45% are online almost constantly.

With this frequency of use comes many different effects and impacts of social media on young people:

The Benefits

In some ways, teens use social media adaptively. Social media can help them discover and create their identity, connect with friends, explore their creative side, and find support from others.

Teens often use social media for self-expression, exposure to other cultures and world events, and education about self-development and health. Sometimes, they even avoid depression by finding distracting, humorous content, and online peers who understand and empathize with them. Social media can provide a safe place for teens to express themselves when they don’t feel like they have one at home or in their friend group.

The Harms

Social media use can also negatively impact teens. It can distract them, disrupt their sleep, expose them to unrealistic expectations, diminish their self-esteem, and even generate cyber-bullying.

Addictive Properties

Teens often have weaker self-restraint around addictive activities- particularly when the behaviors fulfill their needs for love and belonging, freedom, and control. The adverse consequences of social media use could likely be tied to their frequency of and dependency upon screen time: many young people report feeling dependent upon their devices.

Like drugs or video games, social media is one more thing that our teens might have difficulty using in moderation. Social media use can sometimes fall into the category of addictive activities. A 2019 study of more than 6,500 12- to 15-year-olds in the U.S. found that those who spent more than three hours a day using social media might be at heightened risk for mental health problems. Another 2019 study of more than 12,000 13- to 16-year-olds in England found that using social media more than three times a day predicted poor mental health and well-being in teens. A 2019 U.S. study by Michael B. Robb, Ph.D., found that among teens, over 89% own a smartphone, 39% report feeling “addicted to their phones.”

The longer teens are logged in, the higher the likelihood that they:

  • Develop poor self-esteem
  • Experience sleep disruptions
  • Experience anxiety and depression
  • Inflict self-harm or suicide
  • Participate in (or become a victim of) bullying and sharing personal information

Sleep Disruptions

Social media doesn’t directly harm teens, but it can distract them from engaging in healthy behaviors such as going to sleep at the appropriate time (and remaining asleep through the night). The Robb study discovered that 68% of American teens keep their phone in their bed or within reach during the night and over 35% of children woke up during the night to check their mobile device, including nearly half of children (48%) who also reported that they felt addicted to their mobile device.

Ruthann Richter from the Stanford Medical School reports that “sleep deprivation increases the likelihood teens will suffer myriad negative consequences” such as poor concentration, low grades, driving incidents, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation or even suicide attempts.

Anxiety and Depression

In addition to addictive properties, some studies have revealed links between increased social media use and anxiety or depression symptoms. In 2016, the results of a study of more than 450 teenagers suggested that higher social media use, emotional investment in social media, and nighttime social media use were related to poorer sleep and increased anxiety and depression.

A 2015 study suggested that depressive symptoms were more common when teens sought out social comparison and feedback through social media, and in 2013, a study found that older teens who passively used social media (i.e. simply viewing others’ photos) reported declines in life satisfaction. Interestingly, kids who used social media to connect or interact with others and post their own content didn’t experience those declines.

Self Harm and Suicide

Data suggests that social media use has greatly impacted suicide and non-fatal self-harm rates, particularly in young females. The CDC reports that, as social media use has grown since 2010-11, non-fatal self-harm hospitalizations for girls ages 15-19 has increased by 62%, while also escalating by a staggering 189% in younger girls ages 10-14, which is nearly triple what it was before 2010. The same pattern applies to suicide rates in young girls with a 70% increase in the older girls’ age group and 151% in the younger girls’ age group.

Harvard researcher and psychology professor Michael Nock, Ph.D., suggests that bullying is one of many causes of self-harm that teens who are experiencing social pressures or who are desperate to stop being picked on may use self-harm as a cry for help.

Bullying

The high rates of cyberbullying reported could correlate to increased self-harm in teens. A 2018 Pew Research study found a majority of teens have experienced cyberbullying. The majority of these teens (42%) encountered name-calling online or through text, while about a third (32%) of teens say that they’ve had a false rumor spread about them. A smaller percentage (21%) of teens have had someone other than their guardian consistently ask where they are, who they’re with, and what they’re doing and 16% of teens have been victims of physical threats online.

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The same Pew study found that 90% of teens believe that cyberbullying is an issue for their peer group while 63% of those teens believe that it’s a “major problem”. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that:

“Kids who are bullied can experience negative physical, social, emotional, academic, and mental health issues. Kids who are bullies are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy. These issues may persist into adulthood.”

The Department also reports that victims of bullying experience health complaints and decreased academic achievement, as they are “more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school.”

Sharing Personal Information:

Teens can be impulsive by nature. This leads experts to suggest that teens who post on social media are at risk of sharing private or intimate photos and stories. A 2017 study by Pew Research Center and the Berkman Center for Internet Society found that many teenagers extensively share personal information online – 91% post photos of themselves, 71% post their school name, 53 % post email address and, 20% post their cell phone number.

The fallout of this behavior can take different routes ranging from bullying to harassment or blackmail. Such consequences are often not considered by teens who aren’t educated about the effects of posting highly personal information.

A magnitude of research exists to suggest that social media is a growing public health problem, particularly with teens and young adults

The following are some actions you can take to help your teen use social media in a responsible and healthy way.

  1. Set the tone by role modeling healthy social media habits: Be a role model by following the same rules that your family has set around screen time! Don’t use your phone during quality time such as meals, conversations, and while driving.
  2. Set practical expectations and limits: Have a conversation with your teen about when it’s appropriate to use social media and how to avoid letting it interfere with sleep, activities, meals, and homework. Help your teen devise a screen-free bedtime routine.
  3. Monitor accounts: Inform your teen that you’ll be checking their social media accounts once a week or more- and follow through.
  4. Talk about online etiquette: Have a conversation with your teen about what they think is and isn’t ok to do on social media. Discuss gossiping, bullying, and sharing personal or intimate information.
  5. Plan face-to-face activities with friends: Spending in-person time with peers can help your developing teen to establish how valuable real-life activities are and create stronger habits around making a point of putting down their phone and having quality interactions with others.

Seek outside help: Sometimes, the actions listed above don’t seem to work. If you find yourself struggling to help your teen moderate their social media use, you’re not alone. It can be helpful to involve a licensed professional to assist you with implementing long-lasting change.

As a parent, it can feel scary and difficult to combat these issues alone. Along with offering tips for monitoring the use of devices, Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness is here to assist you and your child on your journey towards health and safety. If you are interested in seeking outside help with your teen or young adult’s screen use, anxiety, or depression, reach out to Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness’s admissions team today at (888) 914-1050.