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Is Social Media Ruining Kids' Mental Health? Let's Ask Them

Listening to kids' views of social media can turn conflict into collaboration.

Key points

  • Kids share many of the the concerns we adults have about social media use.
  • Kids will be more engaged in generating solutions to concerns they raise around social media use.
  • Parents and caregivers should approach with curiosity and then work collaboratively.
golubovy / Getty Images
golubovy / Getty Images

As part of Mental Health Awareness month, I was recently discussing with colleagues whether social media has, in fact, harmed the mental health of our children and whether it is really all that different from growing up with network television, the first video games, or dial-up internet in the olden days. The American Psychological Association had just released a health advisory on social media use in adolescence which suggests that the effects of social media on adolescents is highly varied, based on all kinds of individual and contextual factors, while also including suggestions such as:

“Adolescents should limit use of social media for social comparison, particularly around beauty- or appearance-related content.”

This seems like a pretty safe recommendation, except that is what most teenagers' social media feeds are dominated by. I have pretty strong opinions on this subject, and I guess had been eager to share my views without having to maintain professional decorum because I was sitting at my kitchen counter at the end of the day having a snack with my daughter, who is in high school, when I began to rant about the evils of social media and how addicted we all are to our phones.

I told her all the things I hate about social media and “dumbphones.” How the second anyone gets in an elevator, they immediately whip out their phone and become oblivious to the actual humans around them. How bad we have gotten at just being somewhere without having to be immediately occupied. How easily our thoughts and focus can get pulled away from our present moment, even while we are sitting with live people in front of us. How teenagers, but in fact, all of us, are constantly comparing our lives to the carefully curated highlights of everyone else’s lives we see on their posts. How we are forced to read into the tone and intent of messages devoid of body language and intonation, or even more mysterious communications, such as leaving someone “unread.” How kids can see exactly who got together and didn’t invite them. How excessive use has been linked to everything from depression and anxiety to eating disorders. I told her how disgusted I am by the fact that social media companies have engineered their technology expressly to addict our teenage children to something they know hurts their mental health. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. It's eerily similar to cigarette companies’ hook them while they are young tactics. Social media is basically putting a slot machine in our kids' hands all day. I completed my rant by declaring that our children’s adolescence is being hijacked and that anyone who doesn’t agree with me must not have or know a teenager!

In essence, I was a classic old person complaining about how something that didn’t exist when we were kids was going to ruin the world or at least severely harm our children’s mental health. And then something unexpected happened...

I hadn’t even finished my rant before my daughter jumped in and, to my incredible surprise, said she agreed with everything I just said. I had been expecting some kind of defense of social media and what we old people call “screen time” when it turns out that my daughter shares pretty much all my concerns. As I shook off my disbelief and asked her more about her perspective, I learned how she actually felt about the issues. For example, she said most of her peers feel trapped because all of the concerns I ranted about can be true, and yet to decline to use the very technology that causes all of these problems is to ostracize yourself from any realistic social life in high school. What is a kid these days to do except carry on participating in this awful human experiment even while realizing it is decidedly unhealthy to do so?

I spend a lot of time coaching people on how to begin challenging conversations with kids delicately, so it was ironic that beginning this one with an angry rant happened to work. It opened my eyes to the fact that most kids may actually share our concerns, but we rarely give them a chance to share their perspectives. If we do, it could open the door to engaging our kids in generating solutions to their concerns, which they would undoubtedly be more invested in than solutions we dictate to address our adult concerns. What’s an example of the latter? A family I work with attempted to impose restrictions on their screen-addicted son, only to have him pull off quite the deception to beat the system. He put his phone case on his sister’s old phone and used it as a decoy at nighttime, so it looked like his phone was safely stored on his mother’s bedside table as his parents demanded he do when actually he had it in his bed with him the whole time. Not only was this adult-imposed solution ineffective, but it taught their son how to get better at deceiving them, too.

What would an alternative approach look like? Starting with curiosity. In many cases, kids may have specific perspectives that we don’t even know about until we inquire. When I did, this same young man who pulled this trick on his parents told me that he got into some really bad habits during the pandemic, when he had no real restrictions, and now feels like he has little self-control when it comes to excessively being on his phone. I asked if he was worried about that, and indeed he was. He then asked me how he could develop more self-control, which led to a great conversation about practicing self-control with his phone. What a difference it makes for the motivation to come from addressing his own concerns rather than his parents’.

Another teenager I work with told me she uses her phone to escape when she’s in a bad mood to “a world where she can’t mess up.” I acknowledged that scrolling on our phones can serve as an effective escape. But when I asked if she was concerned about that coping mechanism at all, she shared that sometimes it makes her feel worse, and she has a hard time pulling herself out of that place of escape. This led to us brainstorming other methods of escape that she could rely on that didn’t have the negative effects that immersing herself in her phone does.

In essence, what I am describing here are the basic ingredients of an approach we call "collaborative problem solving" that emphasizes the importance of active listening and empathy and begins with an understanding of the underlying concerns and needs that lead young people to concerning behaviors—in this case using screens and social media excessively.

Rather than simply imposing limits or rules, we parents and caregivers need to try our best to approach with curiosity to listen to and understand our kids' concerns and then work collaboratively to find solutions that address them. This collaborative process can promote healthy habits and behaviors while serving as practice for important skills related to self-regulation and emotion-regulation, which our kids need more than ever to make good choices around screen time and social media use.

I don’t recommend starting conversations with our kids with an angry rant. But it was ironic that when I did, I ended up actually hearing more about my daughter’s concerns and was reminded of a valuable framework for addressing the influence of screens and social media on our kids. By working collaboratively to understand their needs and concerns and finding alternative solutions that meet those needs in a healthy way, we can support their well-being and protect their mental health in what we know to be a fraught and rapidly changing digital world.

More from J. Stuart Ablon Ph.D.
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