Mental health in the age of social media 

Today, teens have the opportunity to participate on an ever changing and growing list of social media platforms and are connected to their peers and the larger world in a way different from any past generation. 

While social media can be an excellent tool for connecting and finding community, especially for members of marginalized groups, it can also lead to some troubling mental health outcomes for teens (and adults) of all ages. Here’s what you need to know about teens’ mental health in the age of social media. 

It’s not all bad

Despite the fear that often surfaces when you mention teenagers using social media to parents, it’s not all bad. Social media can be a fun and creative outlet for many teens. For many people, it can be a valuable way to stay connected to distant friends and family, or to find community when they’re feeling isolated. Talking as a family about the “why” behind the request to use social media is crucial. 

Unchecked social media use can lead to troubling outcomes 

When teenagers have access to and participate in social media that is not age-appropriate, affirming, and supportive of a healthy mindset, there can be serious negative consequences. 

Excessive social media use can lead to depression, disrupted sleep, and disengagement from everyday life. It can also expose kids to online bullying, peer pressure, and unrealistic impressions of other people’s lives. 

Many negative outcomes can be traced to how much time kids spend using social media. A 2019 study showed that U.S. teens who use social media for more than three hours per day are at a heightened risk for mental health issues. 

Managing social media is a skill

In our digital world it’s not realistic (or wise) to expect that our teens will never use social media. As parents, it’s our job to help them develop the skills they will need to consume and use social media in a healthy way and to self-regulate their usage when they become adults.  

For many kids, that might mean limiting time usage, avoiding platforms or groups that don’t make them feel good, and having set times of the day that are social media free. Enacting a no-screen rule when they have friends over or at meal time can be places to start. Other skills that will make a big difference to their overall mental health include the media literacy to understand when images have been edited, how companies manipulate social media to make consumers act in a certain way or make certain purchases, and how to monitor their own feelings and responses to images they see on social media. 

Age is just a number

It may be tempting to put off social media use to a specific age or grade. “Sure, when you’re 13 you can download it.” But children mature at different rates, and your child’s ability to follow family rules and stay grounded is unique. One of the toughest aspects of social media is how it turns a child’s gaze and self-evaluation to the external. The number of “likes” and followers suddenly measure self-worth. Teens need to have a strong sense of what they personally care about before being bombarded by other people’s opinions.

In addition to your child wanting social media, you may be feeling external pressure if their peers (or even younger friends) are already allowed social media use. You know your child best. Your family is allowed to have their own path and way of managing this subject.   

Social media is not a one time conversation 

Like most important topics, social media and mental health should not be a one-time conversation. Before your teen ever starts to use social media, talk about how it can impact their mental health and work together to set up the ground rules you think will work for your family. 

Setting up a regular time to check-in (like Sunday evenings or every other Thursday) and putting it on the family calendar can help normalize consistent reevaluation of how things are going a priority in your family. It will also create space to have conversations around things like staying safe online, treating people with kindness online, and what to do if they stumble upon disturbing or upsetting images. 

Taking a peak at our own habits can be illuminating. 

As we begin to explore how social media can impact our teenagers mental health, it can be valuable to look at how it impacts us too. Our kids do what we model, so be sure that you’re treating social media the way you want your kids to treat it and talking openly about how you balance your social media usage and your mental health. Social media use should not be forced on anyone, so if your child requests that they don’t want their photos posted on your account, that is something to respect and is a great boundary setting on their part! Your relationship to social media may change as your child starts their own engagement and reflection on your usage. That is okay!

One day in the not-too-distant future your teenager will be an adult. And as an adult it will be important for them to understand how social media usage can impact their mental health and to act accordingly. By teaching them what they need to know now and letting them practice these skills in the safe environment of your home, you’ll be giving them what they need to use social media wisely and take care of their own mental health in the long run. 

Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team

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