- Kids' mental well-being began to decline after 2012, in conjunction with the rise of smartphone access.
- Today 34 percent of youth with moderate to severe depressive symptoms use social media "almost constantly."
- The key is to have an open dialogue with teenagers to understand how social media may affect their mental health.
Screen time understandably spikes during the holidays when kids are off from school. And for many teenagers, most of this time is spent on social media. There are many reasons young people need to cut back on screen time in the New Year, an obvious one being that they need to get back to focusing on their studies. However, the biggest reason I recommend that teenagers cut back and perhaps make a resolution or goal around it is because of how much social media affects their levels of loneliness and depression. The very thing teenagers think is connecting them with others is often making them feel even more alone.
In a study in the Journal of Adolescence, researchers found that the psychological well-being of adolescents worldwide began to decline after 2012, in conjunction with the rise of smartphone access and increased internet use. Loneliness in school was high when smartphone access and internet use were high, and this relationship has only increased over the years as smartphones have become practically glued to our hands.
While the pandemic had a direct impact on everyone’s mental health in the last few years, regardless of age, teenagers were one of the groups hit hardest by long-term isolation. According to a 2021 study from Common Sense Media and the Hope Lab, rates of depressive symptoms have increased substantially among teens and young adults over the past two years. Social media usage had a direct correlation to increases in depression. The study stated that young people with moderate to severe depressive symptoms use social media far more frequently than others their age.
In 2018, 21 percent of youth with moderate to severe depressive symptoms used social media "almost constantly"; today, this number has reached an alarming 34 percent of teenagers with these symptoms.
Countless studies, like a recent one from the Nesi et al. (2020), outline why young brains are especially vulnerable to social media, compared to those of adults—who are also often negatively affected by it. From the dopamine hit teens get after receiving a “like” or a new “follow” to the shame they can feel after comparing their bodies to someone else’s online, social media can create unhealthy reactions in even the best of us.
So how can parents help their teens break their social media habits in an effort to improve their mental health? Here are a few tips that I’ve recommended over the years:
- Have an open dialogue with them about screen time and social media usage. I know how hard it can be for a parent to get a child to open up, especially about a topic they think their parents just cannot comprehend, but I promise it is doable. Try to approach the topic in a relaxed setting, be easy to talk to, and be a good listener. Make it a dialogue–ask them what social media platforms they use these days and how often they think they use them. By easing them into conversations about social media in a nonthreatening or accusatory way, you can start the dialogue for the tougher conversations below.
- Help them evaluate how they use social media. Of course, the amount of time spent on social media can be worrisome to parents, but we also need to identify how and why kids turn to social media. Ask your teenager what they tend to look at on social medi: Are they looking at makeup tutorials on TikTok or looking at heavily edited pictures of influencers that may make them feel self-conscious about their bodies? When are they using social media–when they are happy, bored, lonely, or nervous? Are they using social media as a distraction from life and work or just because they have some free time after finishing homework? Identifying the answers to these questions will help you and your teen get an idea of how they use social media in their daily lives and how they can make a positive change.
- Help educate them. Just like some of you reading this article, our teenagers may not realize just how detrimental screen time can be to their mental health. Show them a few studies researchers have conducted on the declining rates of teenage mental health due to social media and screen time. Now it’s not just their parent saying that screen time is “bad for them,” but researchers who have spent years studying the negative effects of social media on a teen’s developing brain.
- Be a good example. Our teenagers may not realize how much they are on social media, and we may not either. Turn on the screen time option on your phone for a week to see just how much time you spend on your phone; it will most likely shock you. A few minutes here and there on Instagram can add up to valuable hours a week that you wish you had spent on more important things. If you can decrease the time you are staring at your phone, I promise your teenager will take notice and might just do the same.
- Set practical time limits and goals. Have a talk with your teen about how much time is appropriate to spend on social media a day in their mind and what changes they could introduce to make their screen time a more positive experience. Do they need to unfollow certain accounts that give them feelings of inadequacy or don’t benefit them in any way? Do they need to keep their phones out of their rooms at bedtime until they wake up the next morning to help decrease the urge to check for likes in the middle of the night? Do they need to try deleting an app during the week, or even just one day a week, to see how that changes their behavior? Even small steps can make a big difference in rewiring their brain’s “need” for social media.
Social media, of course, isn’t all bad, and if used in a healthy way, it can actually be helpful in feeling supported by others and getting advice during times of need. The Hope Study also stated that 26 percent of teenagers with depression said that social media was very important for them in getting support and advice when they were struggling.
Social media helps many teenagers reach out to peers with similar interests that they may not come into contact with at school. The key here is to have an open dialogue with your teenager to better understand how social media is or is not impacting their mental health. If you are struggling with knowing how to approach your teen about their social media usage or are worried that their depression stems from their time online, I recommend reaching out to a professional.
To locate a good therapist for your child, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory or ask your child’s primary care physician for recommendations.
Jean M. Twenge, Jonathan Haidt, Andrew B. Blake, Cooper McAllister, Hannah Lemon, Astrid Le Roy, Worldwide increases in adolescent loneliness, Journal of Adolescence, Volume 93, 2021, Pages 257-269, ISSN 0140-1971, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence. 2021.06.006. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140197121000853)
Why young brains are especially vulnerable to social media. American Psychological Association. (2022, August 25). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/apa/2022/social-media-children-teens
Rideout, V., Fox, S., Peebles, A., & Robb, M. B. (2021). Coping with COVID-19: How young people use digital media to manage their mental health. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense and Hopelab