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In May 2023, the US Surgeon General declared a youth mental health crisis, citing social media as the primary driving factor. Of course, that would make any parent terribly frightened about their kid’s social media use. Luckily, psychologists and other researchers have been investigating the potential benefits and harmful effects of social media. Let’s look at what the research actually says.
Does the research show that social media is causing a mental health crisis in adolescents?
Social media usage is not inherently beneficial or harmful to youth. In fact, although the research shows that there is a correlation between lower mental health in teens and social media usage, there are very limited studies, to date, that show a direct causation. In other words, there are several factors influencing the effects of social media on adolescents’ mental health. Imagine this as an equation:
(Social media content + features + functions)
(Teens’ pre-existing strengths + vulnerabilities + context in which they grew up [values, ideologies, family dynamics]
= Effects of social media on adolescent’s mental health
At what age should we give kids access to social media?
There is no concrete age. Sorry! The reason is because adolescent development occurs gradually and is continuous, starting with observable biological and neurological changes around the age of 10 and continuing through approximately 25-30. Therefore, use of social media should be based on level of maturity (ability to self-regulate, intellectual abilities, understanding of risks and consequences) and home environment. In general, potential risks of social media practice are likely to be greater in early adolescence
Are there any benefits to social media?
Despite the risks of social media use, there are some benefits. Social media platforms allow individuals to connect with friends or develop new friendships. Similarly, social media platforms offer spaces for social support, expose children to different cultures and other variables that can encourage self-identity exploration, allow kids to discover new interests and even participate in civic engagement.
What are the recommendations for social media for kids and teens?
Starting to coach your child about social media around 8-9 years-old is suggested and not the same as allowing them to use it. Coaching means you are continuously opening and reviewing a discussion with them about how social media should be used. As pre-adolescents transition into their adolescent journey, adults should continue to help grow their social media literacy. Kids should learn how to question the accuracy and representativeness of social media content, understand that tactics are used to overgeneralize or disseminate mis-information, identify signs of problematic social media use, and comprehend how social media content and images influence social comparisons.
When you introduce your child to the idea of social media, take time to thoroughly explain your beliefs about how social media should be used. Research shows that the emphasis of its use should be the development of their own healthy socialization.
Take the time to explain to your child what each feature means, such as the ‘like’ button, discuss why it is important to have restricted time limits, and why endless scrolling is unfavorable. Similarly, be mindful of who receives the notices and alerts, such as about changes to privacy policies or consents (is it going to your email address or theirs?). Lastly, make your child explicitly aware of how their social media behavior will be used as data that can be stored or shared with others.
Supervising adults should access the settings on each of the social platforms to limit the content to which the child is exposed. Here is a helpful and practical guide on how to limit access to harmful content:
Again, monitoring and continuously discussing online content with your children also reduces the effects of exposure to harmful content on youth’s mental health.
Ask your child what they think about your social media use. Are you demonstrating excessive use? Is social media interfering with your ability to be present? Can you try to mirror to your child how often and in what way you would like them to use social media?
In order to do that, you should make clear everything that is a priority. Priority activities are subjective to your family’s values and beliefs, but can include, reading, exercise, spending in-person time with friends and family, and completing academic work. Of course, sleeping and eating should be demonstrated and explicitly explained as the most important priorities to supporting positive mental health development.
Originally Published in Pascack Valley City Lifestyle, August 2023 Issue