Anxiety in teenagers caused by excessive social media use is steadily rising. Here’s what you need to know about how you can protect your kids.
Almost a decade has passed since the term “Facebook depression” was first coined in a 2011 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Social media’s importance in our everyday lives hasn’t stopped expanding, and neither has the research on social media’s long-term psychological impact on teenagers. There’s no clear-cut scientific consensus yet as to whether social media use per se is a major cause of a growing number of anxiety cases among adolescents. That said, most researchers agree that excessive social media use can harm your child.
A 2019 study published in Lancet Child & Adolescent Health tracked 10,000 British teenagers for three years and demonstrated a clear correlation between growing social media use and worsening mental health. The primary problem is that when your child is glued to the smartphone screen for several hours a day, it often misses out on getting enough physical activity and quality sleep.
A lot of mental pressure also comes from having to be constantly online to quickly reply to friends’ messages or like someone’s new Instagram post. It may seem silly to you as an adult, but for our kids — the first truly digital natives — fast reaction crucially matters. This is also known as FOMO (fear of missing out). It’s a never-ending race for attention, status and feedback across multiple platforms and often dozens if not hundreds of “friend” accounts. Coming late to message thread after several friends already replied, can cause your child genuine emotional distress. The resulting constant 24h alertness can take a heavy toll on a young mind. FOMO spurs many teenagers to not even turn off their phones at night, and they thus are repeatedly woken up by incoming alerts.
Girls tend to be more strongly affected by excessive social media use, because on average they spend more time on it than boys and they also are more likely to become victims of cyberbullying. A large 2014 study on 11,000 14-year-olds found that 40% of girls spend a stunning three hours on social media every day, whereas just 20% of boys did so (one reason is that the boys are busy gaming).
As social media exposure increases beyond the three-hour threshold, many mental health issues arise, and it again is disproportionally affecting girls. Some 40% of girls who spend five hours or more on social media suffer from depression or anxiety, while for boys it’s “only” 15%. One major factor that explains the difference is that adolescent girls more frequently experience cyberbullying — 7.5% vs. 4.3%, respectively. More importantly, girls tend to take cyberbullying much more seriously than boys, who have an easier time shrugging it off. That is because girls are more focused on appearances and comparing their looks with others. In the carefully curated and artificial world of Instagram it’s easy for a young girl to feel inferior to others. And a few online comments can do much damage to the already fragile self-esteem of an adolescent girl.
Whether your child’s social media use borders on excessive levels, which can lead to anxiety or depression in the longer run, is easily to assess and monitor. For preventing social media-induced anxiety in the first place, it’s vital that you pay attention to your child’s social media exposure and take preventive measures when necessary.
How to monitor for signs that your child is spending too much time on social media
- If there’s an imbalance in your child’s life, i.e., if too much time is spent looking at the smartphone, tablet or computer screen rather playing sports, studying or sleeping, you probably already know by now.
- There’s no standard definition for what the daily usage limit should be, but more than three hours a day is considered unhealthy by most experts. This by the way includes time spent on gaming. So, collectively, social media and gaming shouldn’t take up more than 3 hours of your child’s day. Otherwise they take away time needed for quality sleep, physical exercise, school work etc.
- Watch out for signs of FOMO, such as when your child interrupts the family dinner or a conversation with you to check his or her phone, or when the phone is constantly carried on the body at all times of the day.
- Once children go to bed in their own rooms, it’s hard to keep track of their social media use and you can’t always rely on accurate self-reporting. Fortunately there’s a wide variety of apps that help parents follow the screen time and data usage of their kids. Many phones even by design include screen time controls and can be activated by parents.
- There even are apps that give parents complete surveillance over children’s social media use, search engine queries and the like. However, such an extreme intrusion into your child’s privacy and independence isn’t justifiable, unless prescribed by a psychiatric expert.
What you can do to prevent excessive social media use
- Help your child build a strong offline personality. Social media has its benefits, but much of it — let’s be honest — is an unhealthy mix of human vanity, social competition, and commercial interests. An online appearance, however perfectly cultivated, isn’t real life and doesn’t define one’s value as a human being. Even many adults sadly don’t get that, so it will take an extra effort to get this message across to children. Making that effort is well worth your time, though. Try to do more offline activities with your children, such as day trips, sports, board games, theater visits, i.e., the kind of things you used to do as kid in a still mostly analog world. Invite their friends to join. Start as early as possible, well before your children even start dabbling in social media.
- Find engaging long-term hobbies for your children, something that helps providing structure and an offline community to their lives, like biweekly soccer or chess lessons or regular charity work for local NGOs or churches. If such regular activities are pursued for several years, children can grow a stronger character that takes pride in the sport or work they do, or the team spirit of their community. Volunteer work is particularly recommended, as few things are more empowering for a young person’s self-esteem than the experience of helping others. By having their self-worth defined through such offline activities, children become more immune against the false promises of social media and can see right through the whole charade.
- Be a role model. Children often emulate parental behavior. If you spend a lot of time on your phone or frequently talk about friends on social media or things your saw there, your child will learn to attach equal importance to social media. Simply limit your use of social media (and screen time in general) in front of your child as much as possible. Show your child that the online world only plays a small role in your life. One good practice is to put your own away at night. Ask all family members to put their smartphones on the kitchen table or another central spot by bedtime.
- Remind children what’s behind the façade. Once your children start using social media, remind them on suitable occasions (like when they show you someone’s fancy Instagram vacation pictures) that such images are staged, beautified moments out of a another person’s life that’s just as ordinary as ours, with all its ups and downs.
Be receptive for your child’s emotions. Make sure your child knows that it can come to you to discuss any feelings or concerns. If they are experiencing distress, either in real life or online, you want to be the person they first come to. That said, teenagers need privacy and their own boundaries. If parents become too nosy, teenagers tend to close up. So, don’t appear too eager to hear their thoughts, but let them know you are when they need you.