In just a few years’ time, social media has become a powerful force in the life of teenagers. The vast majority of teens - 70% - used social media multiple times per day in 2018, up from 34% in 2012. And even by their own admission, this new habit is distracting them from important things: 57% of teens say social media distracts them from homework, while 54% say it distracts them from paying attention to people they’re with.
Social media use is a frequent topic of discussion for families seeking help from our practice. With teenagers spending as much as nine hours a day on social media, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s having a significant impact on their mental health.
In this article, I’ll share some insights on why social media has become such a dominant force in the lives of our children. I’ll also provide guidelines for how to recognize when social media use has reached problematic levels, and I’ll offer suggestions for how parents can work with their teenage children on effectively managing their relationship with technology.
A Uniquely Powerful Force
Have you checked Facebook today?
For most people reading this story, the answer will be “yes.” More than two-thirds of adults in the United States are Facebook users. Most Facebook users visit the site daily, or even multiple times per day. So, odds are you’ve experienced the allure of social media in your own life.
For most teenagers, that allure is even stronger. They’re at an age when insecurity and social anxiety runs high. Most teens are eager to see themselves as happy, confident, and headed toward a successful future. They’re eager to project that image of themselves to their peers, and many teens are fearful of having negative things being said about them.
You probably experienced many of these same concerns as a teenager. The difference is you couldn’t monitor your social standing and manipulate your image at any time of day. Your kids can and that’s why they’re spending so much time on Instagram, Snapchat, or whatever social media platform they deem to be important.
Designed to Keep Us Hooked
No matter what your views are on the benefits and pitfalls of social media, it’s a fact that these platforms are designed to capture and hold our attention. All the major social media platforms are run by for-profit companies. They may cite high-minded mission statements about the power of connecting people, but make no mistake: they exist to make money.
Since they don’t charge users, these companies’ revenue comes from advertisers. The business model is simple: more users spending more time on the platform means more advertising revenue.
Much as casinos meticulously regulate every aspect of the gaming experience to extract money from gamblers, social media platforms do the same to maximize people’s time on their platform. They employ sophisticated techniques to measure what stimuli keeps users engaged. They understand how stimuli such as shares and likes impact the flow of neurotransmitters in our brains. And they strive to create a stream of small psychological rewards that keep social media users engaged.
To put it simply, it’s no accident that your teenager spends so much time on social media; the platforms are designed with that goal in mind.
Benefits and Pitfalls
I’m not suggesting that all social media use is inherently bad for teenagers. As you’ve likely experienced in your own life, these platforms provide many opportunities for making meaningful connections, strengthening relationships, and expressing oneself.
But with those benefits come numerous pitfalls.
The social comparison that’s facilitated by these platforms can become overwhelming, eroding a child’s sense of self. They fall victim to the trap of comparing the idealized image of someone else’s life with the messy reality of their own. For those teenagers who may already be prone to anxiety and depression, these comparisons can exacerbate the severity of those conditions. In fact, studies show that teens with low social-emotional well-being are more likely to have negative experiences with social media.
Having constant access to a smartphone makes it easy to avoid uncomfortable feelings. If a teenager is feeling bored, frustrated, or anxious, the automatic response is often to engage with their smartphone. As with any avoidance-based behavior, this over-reliance on smartphone use can undermine the teenager’s development of healthy coping mechanisms. If someone constantly escapes from feelings and situations that make them uncomfortable, they’ll have a hard time developing the skills needed to overcome their discomfort.
Another risk of social media use is the opportunity cost: what are teenagers not doing when they’re engaged for hours on social media? For one thing, they’re not socializing in the real world. That means they’re not developing the social skills that are vital for navigating relationships. Social media use may also come at the expense of schoolwork, sleep, physical activity, or the underrated activity of daydreaming.
Cause and Effect
Let’s get back our central concern of how technology may be impacting your teenager’s mental health.
It’s nearly impossible to prove that the increase in time spent on social media is causing the increase in anxiety and depression. That said, several studies point to a direct correlation between social media use and mental health issues among teens. I don’t think we need additional studies to conclude that excessive social media use can be problematic.
Spending nine hours a day on Instagram may not be the cause of your child’s anxiety, but it’s very likely to be contributing to or exacerbating the condition. While it may be a coincidence that the prevalence of teenage anxiety surged at the same time that smartphone use became ubiquitous, I strongly doubt it.
Is it a Problem for My Child?
How does a parent know when their teenager’s social media use has become a problem? Common sense is usually your best tool for making this determination.
When I speak with parents who are concerned about their teen’s smartphone use, I typically ask about how the child is doing in various areas of their life. Are they performing well in school? Are they maintaining friendships? Do they seem reasonably happy? If a parent answers “yes” to these questions, I’m likely to advise them not to be overly concerned about their teenager’s social media use, as it doesn’t seem to be problematic.
As a psychologist focused on treating anxiety disorders in adolescents, the conversations I have with parents more frequently include concerns about some aspect of their child’s development. They may have noticed their teen spending more time alone, being less communicative at home, not performing up to their potential at school, or seeming less engaged in extra- curricular activities. Any of these can be signs of a mental health issue requiring attention.
What’s a Parent to Do?
If you suspect your child may be struggling with a mental health issue – whether related to technology use or not – it’s best to consult a mental health professional.
The suggestions below are meant not as a substitute for seeking help when needed, but rather for helping your child develop appropriate habits when it comes to social media use.
Engage Them in the Solution
It’s important that the motives for addressing your teen’s relationship with technology are clear, both to you and to your child. There are real risks involved with social media use. Your goal isn’t to stop your child from engaging in an activity they enjoy, but rather to help them understand the risks and develop healthy habits. Your odds of successfully engaging in a dialogue with your teenager increase if they understand that you are acting out of concern for their health and safety.
Remember that your child’s social media habits have evolved over time and reached a level that concerns you. You’re not going to resolve the issue in one talk over dinner. It’s going to take dialogue,consideration, and negotiation. Allow your teen enough time to get past their initial resistance. This isn’t about an instant fix; it’s about a behavior change that may happen over weeks or even months.
Your goal is to reach a shared agreement with your child about their social media use. It should involve mutually agreed limits. And it should be codified in writing. I suggest collaborating with your teenager on a contract that all parties sign. The contract may need to be revised over time, which is fine. What’s important is to reach an agreement, discuss progress weekly, and carry out specific consequences if the terms of the contract are broken.
It’s likely that your child will resist having limits placed on their technology usage if they’ve had relatively free rein in the past. Teens crave independence and are likely to rail against any attempted imposition on it. In other words, don’t expect this process to be easy!
In some cases, a child may have an extreme or even violent reaction to the prospect of curtailing their social media use. That reaction shouldn’t surprise you; as I noted earlier, these platforms are designed to maximize engagement and can foster an addictive relationship.
Be the Parent
It can be hard to say “no” to our teenage children. They’ve had time to learn how to get what they want from us and many of them are experts at it. But what they want isn’t the same as what’s best for them. That’s where we come in as parents: it’s our job to help them stay healthy and safe.
After all, you’re probably paying for your child’s phone and mobile service. And you’re providing food and housing for your child. In other words, you’re the parent! You have every right (and responsibility) to set the rules when it comes to your child and their smartphone. They may view unlimited smartphone usage as an inalienable right, but if necessary, don’t be afraid to demonstrate that it is, in fact, a privilege.
While teenagers may not like rules, they understand them. Rules can and should be made (ideally together) for smartphone use. Consider having your child create the first draft of these rules. They’re likely to create more stringent rules than you might develop, so use this as a starting point and propose changes that are in line with your expectations.
These rules can include limits on where and for how long the child may use their phone. For example, many families establish mealtimes as a technology-free zone. And I strongly recommend that phones be kept outside of the bedroom during sleep hours.
When it comes to enforcing rules, there are many tools available to parents. The major mobile phone carriers all offer parental control options with their plans, as do some of the major phone manufacturers. If you don’t think your child is capable of self-regulating their technology use, don’t hesitate to put these convenient (and usually free) tools to work.
Practice What You Preach
Your warnings about the risks of abusing technology won’t have much credibility if you’re glued to your own screens. Be mindful of the time you spend on your phone and set a positive example for your teenager.
Insist on Transparency
I saved what may be the most controversial suggestion for last.
I’m of the belief that parents can and should monitor what their children are doing on their smartphones. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many examples of teens that have put themselves at real risk by not practicing appropriate caution in their social media use. Just as we wouldn’t let our teenager travel to a dangerous country on their own, we shouldn’t let them roam the internet without supervision.
Yes, you have the right to follow your teenager on social platforms. Yes, you have the right to view their browsing history. Yes, you have the right to know who they’re communicating with via text, email, and social media.
At times you may feel as if you’re fighting an unwinnable battle against social media. Remember that your job isn’t to “win” this battle; it’s to help your teen effectively navigate the rapidly evolving social media landscape. By engaging in conversation with your teenager, working with them to set appropriate limits, and exercising your authority as a parent when necessary, you can help your child enjoy the benefits of technology while avoiding the pitfalls.