In my last tech article, I talked about the role parents play in their children’s use of social media. Recently I attended the National Summit on K-12 School Safety and Security webinar organized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). While the summit was targeted to schools and school leaders, there was information shared that is relevant to families and the impact of social media on children’s mental health.  In this article, I will share some of the insights gained on the family’s role in supporting their children’s mental health in an increasingly connected technology-using world.

Children are exposed to social media on a regular basis. Use of these platforms can influence their developing perceptions of the world in which they live as well as themselves. Platforms like YouTube Kids and educational apps become part of their daily routines, subtly shaping their cognitive development. As children become teenagers, platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat offer content consumption and avenues for self-expression and identity formation. These platforms can greatly influence how teens socialize as well as their sense of self. 

Social media use can be a positive force for children in the sense of promoting educational opportunities, creating an outlet for creative expression, and promoting a sense of community. For some, especially those with niche interests or who feel isolated geographically or socially, it can be a lifeline to like-minded peers. Conversely, the potential harms of unchecked social media use are becoming increasingly apparent. Studies point to the rise in screen addiction, with excessive use linked to diminished attention spans and disrupted sleep patterns. Cyberbullying also is emerging as a rampant issue, leading to anxiety and depression in vulnerable youths. Additionally, the curated personas and lifestyles often depicted on these platforms can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.

Earlier this year, the Surgeon General released an advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health.”  The report notes that 95 percent of youth ages 13-17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly.” Even though in the U.S. its use is restricted to children younger than 13, nearly 40 percent of children ages 8–12 reported using social media.

Every child is wired differently so the parental response to each child’s social media use will be unique. Parents and other caregivers can engage in open communication as a critical defense and discuss the virtual world just as they would with any other aspect of life. They can discuss topics such as what a healthy digital life looks like and what might be warning signs of trouble. By initiating these conversations early, parents can establish themselves as approachable confidants, enabling them to better recognize behavior patterns that might be the key to recognizing signs of problematic social media use. 

Children, at different ages and developmental stages, have different needs and different skill sets that they bring to their technology use. In early adolescence, when identities and a sense of self-worth are forming, brain development is especially susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions, and peer comparisons. Emotional disturbances, such as feelings of loneliness or sadness, have been documented. A 2019 article in the journal, JAMA Psychiatry, found that children ages 12-15 who spent more than three hours per day on social media, faced double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes including symptoms of depression and anxiety. In severe cases, persistent exposure to harmful online content has been linked to self-harm and suicidal ideation. 

Parents should note any marked changes in their child’s behavior. A decline in academic performance, withdrawal from family or in-person social activities, or alterations in eating and sleeping patterns can all be indicators that a child’s social media use may be having negative consequences. Behavioral red flags such as irritability or secretive screen use also merit a closer look.

Mitigating the negative risks of social media use begins with setting boundaries, use of parental controls and staying informed on the latest platform trends and privacy settings. Implementing screen time limits and ensuring media use doesn’t interfere with essential activities like sleeping, studying, or physical play is a good start.

Beyond restrictions, it’s about encouraging a healthy balance. Helping children to cultivate interests outside the digital domain, from sports to the arts, can provide them with a broader perspective and a varied set of coping skills. Equally important is educating children about online safety and equipping them with the know-how to navigate digital spaces wisely.

As we plunge deeper into the digital age, the symbiotic relationship between social media and mental health becomes increasingly complex. By remaining engaged and informed, parents can help steer their children towards positive online experiences and away from potential harm.

Karen Clay
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