Kids on social media must mind their mental health

Surgeon general’s warning cites new research and advises setting healthy limits

Kids on social media must mind their mental health

Social media can be a great way for teens and pre-teens to stay connected with friends, family and others with common interests. Its unmonitored use can also be the gateway to trouble, however.

Behavioral health leaders across the U.S. are urging parents to monitor the social media habits of their children, citing it as a factor in the increase in mental health issues in adolescents.

The progression from what starts as a standard diversion, like watching TV or playing video games, to something darker can be a slippery slope, says Dene Hovet, associate behavioral health counselor for Sanford Health.

In many cases, neither kids nor parents quite realize the extent to which the internet and social media have taken over their lives.

“It’s important to set boundaries for your children like you would with any other social interaction or situation,” Hovet said. “For example, if your child wants to go down to the park and hang out with friends for a few hours, you might set a limit on that. Something along the lines of, ‘I want you to be home by 5.’”

The same parent who wants their child home for dinner on time might be more hesitant to place restrictions on social media use.

“What if your teen comes to you and says, ‘Hey, can I go down to the park and stand on a bench for 10 to 12 hours and see how many of you like my outfit?’” Hovet said. “That puts it in perspective. Balance is important and it’s important to look at it like any other social situation. Are you really going to let them stay on there all day?”

Social media and kids’ mental health

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has issued an advisory that reports there is ample indication social media can harm the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents. Dr. Murthy called on policymakers, tech companies, educators, families and young people to better understand the impact of social media use.

“The most common question parents ask me is: Is social media safe for my kids? The answer is that we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health,” Dr. Murthy said.

“Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content, to bullying and harassment,” he continued. “And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends. We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis – one that we must urgently address.”

Get honest about screen time

Hovet’s role at Sanford often puts her in contact with teens and pre-teens about their level of engagement with social media. Those conversations can be eye-opening.

“We start by sitting down and looking at the numbers,” Hovet said. “We look at the screen time and those numbers don’t lie. Sometimes we’ll be sitting face-to-face and it’s like ‘OK, I was really on Instagram for six hours yesterday?’ And then it’s ‘Oh gosh, maybe I can do a better job with this.’”

How does a parent talk to a child about social media? It can be uncomfortable in many cases because kids often know more about social media than their parents. And the parents know that. What starts out as a lecture from a parent on the evils of social media can unravel when the teenager decides the one lecturing them doesn’t have a clue.

Instead of lecturing, ask questions, Hovet said.

“You should be asking your kids if they’re running into any problems with social media and really talk about how you feel about social media,” she said. “The more you let kids talk, the more they’ll open up and build a level of rapport where they feel comfortable talking to you.”

Statistics supplied in the U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory provide a daunting backdrop for young people’s level of engagement in social media. Whether it’s good or harmful, it’s all around us and it’s not going anywhere.

Up to 95% of youth ages 13-17 use a social media platform, the report stated, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly.”

Some of the feedback is positive: Adolescents report that social media helps them feel more accepted (58%) and gives them access to those who can support them in trying situations (67%). Social media platforms also provide a place for young people to show their creative side (71%) and keep them more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives (80%).

In the same advisory, however, research indicates adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety. Social media use may lead to body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls.

Talk about your family priorities

Cyberbullying can become particularly troublesome for teenagers targeted anonymously by others who go to the same schools or live in the same communities. In Hovet’s conversations with parents, the No. 1 social media concern for their children is the existence of predatory adults posing as young people. For kids, cyberbullying is viewed as a bigger problem.

As Hovet explained it, perpetrators will set up fake hate accounts with made-up names and then post photographs of fellow students, often accompanied by unflattering captions. These posts then circulate. With everyone hiding behind fake names, victims of this kind of bullying have no control over what is posted.

“It can be really tough for a lot of kids who don’t have a lot of self-esteem,” Hovet said. “Everybody is hiding behind fake accounts. You can use parental controls, but kids are pretty smart about these things and they can get around them.”

Helping kids get out of bad social media habits can sometimes include tough love. Delivering that message effectively can be challenging for a parent, but necessary.

“Better screen-time habits come from setting boundaries at home and really having open discussions about it,” Hovet said. “What do we want our house to look like? Do we want to sit at the dinner table and not have our phones out? Do we want to have a cleanse day where we do a family activity and put all our social media away?

“It’s a bigger, broader topic than just social media. But we have to ask ourselves and our children: Do we want to live in a home where everyone is always texting and watching videos on their phones all the time?”

Scrutinize your search results

In recent years, all social media consumers – not just the kids – have been encouraged to be sensitive to triggering content and opt out of content that makes them feel uncomfortable. The use of algorithms in tracking adolescents’ internet habits has complicated this dramatically.

As an example, Hovet described a quest to find healthy recipes on the internet. An algorithm-fueled search could send a young person to a site that explains how to purge.

“It can be really dangerous,” Hovet said. “It’s important for kids to start to identify, like they would in any other social situation, how something makes them feel. What is their gut reaction? Kids are pretty good about knowing when they’re on the wrong road.”

Top social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, X (Twitter) and Snapchat all have settings that will hinder outside entities from monitoring your children’s content.

To parents who might be intimidated by the technical aspects of keeping children safe in their internet and social media use, Hovet offered reassurance.

“At the end of the day it’s all about building relationships and communicating with your kids,” she said. “When I talk to teens in high school, if they have a good relationship with their parents or a trusted adult, they won’t hesitate to go to them when they’re struggling. It’s super important for kids to know you will listen to them and that they will be able to have good communication.”

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Posted In Behavioral Health, Children's, Family Medicine, Healthy Living