Social media can be bittersweet. We love it...yet we hate it.   And the way we’ve utilized it in our daily lives has also changed over the years. What once seemed like a non-threatening way to interact with one another, is now something that many parents question.   We wonder how social media affects our children’s’ mental health...especially when they spend a lot of time engaging with it.   According to the Mayo Clinic, “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.”   So, when we have an age group that is extremely vulnerable during a time in which they are developing key social-emotional skills, we need to take some time to understand how their interaction with social media affects them.   Here’s a few ways social media impacts children and teens:  

Social Media Can Cause Teens to Develop Anxiety

Remember the 2000 term FOMO (fear of missing out)?   Well, that’s exactly how social media creates anxiety in a child’s life.   If they miss something on Facebook, for example, they fear that they will be left in the dark, they won’t fit in or know what is going on with their friends.   This often leads to constant social media monitoring.   And those who constantly check social media, are experiencing interruption during moments when they may be actively engaging with other activities, or worse yet, during moments of downtime.   Children and teens need moments of quiet and concentration to excel in their academics and in-person social life. Unfortunately,  social media robs them of their ability to concentrate and focus on what is happening right in from of them.  

Inauthentic Communication Skills

As children and teens develop their communication and relationship skills, they do so through experimentation in face-to-face situations.   At least, that’s how it was before social media.   Today, children learn how to communicate behind a screen or keyboard, which causes them to miss out on authentic means of communication.   The danger here, of course, is that children are not able to pick up on subtle, important, language, and communication cues, like the tone of voice or body language when they are limited to social media interactions.   Moreover, because teens miss out on the development of the cue identification skills, there is also the possibility that they’re missing out on proper interpretation or meaning of words.   For example, a teen may read a friend’s status and assume it is either directed at them or meant to be rude. This can make them experience anxiety and relationship problems with the other person.  

Hiding Behind the Computer

Many of us, who have learned how to text and enjoy social media know that emailing, texting, or messaging someone is often easier than saying difficult things to another person face-to-face.   In a way, children today can take the easy way out when there is a relationship problem with a friend rather than building confidence and courage by speaking in person with someone.   Additionally, coping with emotions during an argument online may be more challenging than if the misunderstanding was happening in person because there is no other interaction besides typing.   There is no voice, no eye contact, body language, or speaking volume. These are all language and communication cues that are important for the development of social skills.  

Struggles with Identity or Fitting In

If used excessively, and relied on for relationship building and communication, social media can become a part of ones’ identity—or how they want their identity portrayed.   It can also lead to comparison and even jealousy.   It’s important for teens to understand that social media isn’t always factual and while someone may appear to have a perfect life, it may not be a reality.   Unrealistic expectations can also form and teens may have trouble living authentically for fear of not fitting in with what everyone else is doing on social media...and what looks like perfection.  

How You Can Help Your Child

The good news is, there’s so much we can do to help our children navigate the world of social media, and not miss out on important social-emotional developmental milestones.   Here are a few ideas to help manage social media and your child:  

Explain the Reality of Social Media

As soon as your child is old enough to understand that social media is more like a storefront for someone who is trying to sell their wares, take the time to explain that to them.   If they understand that most people put their best foot forward on social media they may not fall into a comparison trap.  

Teach Them to Self-Limit Social Media Usage

And start now.   As soon as your child has access to social media, teach them how to set their own usage limits.   It can be helpful to teach your teens to use social media only once a day and never during mealtime, bedtime, or during school, for example.   These are habits that your child will form, and hopefully, they will take them with them through their entire life.   It’s also important to lead by example in this situation.  

Be A Nosey Nelly

I know it doesn’t sound cool, but it’s important to have access to your child’s social media account and that they know you have it.   Knowing whats going on in your child’s account is helpful in three important ways:  
  1. You will know if your child is in danger and/or being bullied. You can then act quickly and appropriately to help your child.
  2. You will know if your child is the bully...and you can teach them why their behavior is wrong.
  3. Your child will know you will be monitoring; thus, they will be less apt to act inappropriately online.
  Of course, having control over your child’s account will also allow you to limit their access if needed.  

Host Gatherings and Participation

Because social media may stunt the development of important in-person social skills, it’s important to promote face-to-face interactions with peers.   Allowing your child to have supervised parties, go to the movies with friends, and other socially engaging 1:1 activities will help them pick up on the important communication skills they might otherwise miss behind a computer screen.   You can also encourage your child to participate in school-related activities, like sports, or help them uncover a healthy hobby in which they can socialize with others who have the same interests.   It’s important to know that the effects of social media can be managed and teaching your child how to interact, and limit their time, on it will pay off tenfold in the future.   Most importantly, talk to your children and encourage face-to-face gatherings and social media time-outs to help them form healthy relationships and avoid the ever-dreaded FOMO.