Social media for kids: The impact on their mental health

Health Agenda
Mental Health

Social media for kids: The impact on their mental health

How do you know when social media is affecting your child’s mental health? Recognise the signs and support children with their social media use.

What most worries parents about their kids growing up in a hyper-digital landscape? A straw poll would tell us that most would give the same answer: social media.

In Australia, a huge number of teens (91%) aged 15-19 use social media networks, including Facebook, spending up to 18 hours a week online.   

So, given we’re using this method of communication often and without significant studies exploring its potential side effects, it’s worth considering the impacts of social media, and how we can help our kids navigate this ever-evolving and complex world in a way that’s both fun and safe.   

What is social media?

Social media is a catch-all term used to describe the digital platforms, websites or apps that people use to connect to one another, and to create and share content.

If you’re a parent of tweens or teens, your kids are probably using (or want to be using) social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, TikTok, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, Snapchat. It’s important to remember these apps all have suggested age limits and aren’t always suitable for younger children. For example, Instagram requires all users to be at least 13 years old.

Teens’ and tweens’ brains develop rapidly, so it’s important for parents to understand the impact – good and bad – that social media networking sites may have.

The appeal of social media

If you haven’t grown up with social media, the attraction to some of the platforms can be a bit baffling. But for young people, all that scrolling, liking, following and selfie-taking is sometimes the main way they connect with their friends and broader social circle, and keep up-to-date with what’s happening.

Young people use social media to:

  • Talk to their friends
  • Find out what’s going on – in their friendship circles and globally
  • Have fun
  • Feel connected to friends and family and feel less isolated
  • Relieve boredom
  • Be creative – with photos, videos, music – and share their ideas
  • Meet new people
  • Find support and friendship (especially in minority groups like LGBTQIA+).

The risks of social media

Most of us have heard about the negative effects of social media, and unfortunately there are good reasons to feel concerned.

Some of the risks associated with social media are:

  • Disrupted sleep: many kids stay up late to chat with friends or play in game environments
  • Access to inappropriate material or websites
  • Having personal information shared without consent
  • Being harassed or bullied
  • Identity theft
  • Mental health issues, depressive symptoms and psychological distress: this is particularly the case for teenage girls who are more likely to experience cyberbullying through social media sites. 

How to recognise when kids have a problem with social media

When young people have their eyes glued to their phones, computers or tablets, it can be hard for parents to know if they’re innocently absorbed or if something is wrong.

Clinical psychologist Nikita Singh says one of the major signs that indicate young people are struggling with the impact of these platforms is when parents ask their children to separate from their screens and it turns into conflict or misbehaviour. “If you find yourself having to snatch their phone or asking them to put it away and they storm off, that’s an indicator there’s an issue,” Nikita says.

Here are some of the warning signs there may be a problem with social media use:

  • Decrease in energy
  • Interrupted sleep patterns
  • Less enthusiasm for, and participation in, hobbies, sport and homework
  • Offline withdrawal from real world family/friends
  • Reluctance to talk openly about social media
  • Increased anxiety – feeling the need to be constantly checking social media or worrying about an online faux pas.

How to support tweens and teens with their social media use

Just like in the offline world, there are plenty of things you can do to make sure your kids are staying within the boundaries of internet safety:

  • Educate yourself
    Some teenagers have two sets of social media accounts – the ones parents know about and those they don’t. Rather than getting irritated or worried, have an open and non-judgemental chat with your kids about which platforms they’re on and how they’re using them. This way you can become your child’s social media ally rather than enemy, helping them stay safe online.
  • Set boundaries
    Studies have shown that moderate internet users (one-to-two hours per day) have the highest life satisfaction. “Set family rules that cover who is allowed social media, when it’s allowed, where, and for how long,” advises Nikita. “You want to set a structure from a young age so children get into good habits and understand there are boundaries.”
  • Make a contract
    Think about making a social media agreement with your kids. Kids sign a document agreeing not to bully or gossip (and to tell you if they’re being bullied), not give out personal information such as a phone number, or share inappropriate content. But remember this is a two-way street. You may respect your teens’ autonomy by following them on social but agree not to post comments or risk becoming an #EmbarrassingParent.
  • Set an example
    “Parents need to model appropriate use of digital technology and you can do this by being aware of your own habits,” says Nikita. Sometimes we forget our kids are watching us while we use our devices. Talk with your kids about how you’re using your phone’s ‘smartness’ to schedule time away from the screen where only phone calls are available, set time limits on apps and compare your weekly screen-time reports.
  • Check in regularly
    Social media is constantly evolving, so as parents we need to make sure we don’t just ‘set and forget’. Make time (over dinner when the devices are put away) to ask your kids about what’s been happening on their social media feeds. “Parents often feel like their attempts to connect with their children fall on deaf ears,” says Nikita. “But I encourage parents to regularly let their children know that they are available to listen and talk. Most teenagers will talk eventually, especially at incidental times like when you’re in the car or preparing dinner.”
  • Plan face-to-face time
    One of the risks of social media is that the real, offline world can fade into the background. Organise catch-ups with friends, go on outings as a family, cook as a family and eat together, or plan other social gatherings. These kinds of experiences are crucial for healthy social development and help balance out screen time.

Need more information or help?

Children’s mental health is important, and social media can have a big impact on your child’s psychological wellbeing. If you have concerns, you can get professional help from your child’s school counsellor, your GP or paediatrician, a mental health service or a psychologist.

We recommend these expert online resources about social media and mental health:

Words by Lindy Alexander
First published February 2020

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