BY CECELIA TAMBURRO
Remaining aware and responsible in the social media age.
It can be helpful to educate your child or teen about the ways in which social media use affects them. By increasing their mental health literacy, you can provide your teen with tools to improve their mental health.
Modern day parents often worry about social media use amongst their teens. Unsurprisingly, recent surveys show 92 percent of teens report using the internet daily, while 24 percent use it “almost constantly.” As teens increasingly use social media throughout their daily lives, it is important to be aware of the possible effects that this usage can have on mental health.
Nowadays, almost everybody seems to be using social media. Since the arrival of popular sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, social media usage has increased rapidly. Just in the past decade, the percentage of Americans who use social media has increased dramatically, from just 5 percent in 2005 to 69 percent today. Social media can be a fun way to bring us closer to our peers, but anyone who has used Facebook can tell you that heavy social media usage can sometimes take its toll on your mental health. The ability to keep up with the lives of friends, family, and even people far outside our social circles makes it easier to compare ourselves and fall prey to the “fear of missing out”.
In fact, social media may have a number of effects on our mental health. Studies show that social media can increase anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness and isolation. Significant time spent on social media can lead to lack of sleep, which can strongly increase your risk for developing a mental health disorder. In particular, sites that place a heavy value on images, such as Instagram, can often exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and negative self-image. These image-focused sites tend to be most popular among teenagers.
SOCIAL MEDIA: A CHALLENGE TO TEEN MENTAL HEALTH?
As any parent knows, adolescence can be a time of dramatic physical, emotional, and social changes for many young adults. It can be hard for teens to navigate their emotional well-being, especially as they find themselves in new and uncertain situations. For some teens, these challenges can bring about the onset of mental health disorders. In fact, roughly half of people with mental health disorders first present with symptoms during childhood or adolescence.
Today, more than three quarters of American teens use Snapchat and Instagram to communicate. At this vulnerable time, heavy social media use poses a potential risk to their mental health. It can be helpful to educate your child or teen about the ways in which social media use affects them. By increasing their mental health literacy, you can provide your teen with tools to improve their mental health.
REMAINING AWARE AND RESPONSIBLE
Mental health literacy includes the ability to recognize signs, symptoms, and risk factors associated with mental illness. This is paired with the corresponding ability to engage in help-seeking and prevention behaviors. Dr. Paula Durlofsky, a family psychologist from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, says that she encourages her patients to remain mindful of why they are using social media. “The first step is to ask yourself why. Why am I using social media? What do I hope to gain?” By asking these questions, teens can gain an understanding of their motivations behind certain social media behaviors. This awareness can help them assess whether a site is helping them feel closer to peers or if is making them feel worse.
Our social media feeds bombard us with other peoples’ thoughts, lives, and ideas. Understanding when, and how, to take breaks from potentially distressing content can also benefit teens struggling with heavy social media use. Dr. Durlofsky says that although social media is useful for maintaining relationships, “it interferes with creating that natural distance” that people often need during a conflict. Whether it is a disagreement between friends or a breakup, social media can disrupt the natural healing process by providing a visual reminder of the conflict. Make sure your teen is aware of this issue by talking to them about the value of taking breaks, especially during a stressful or upsetting time. Encouraging healthy coping mechanisms to deal with this stress, such as taking a walk or talking about the issue one-on-one, can help your teen recognize when it’s time to take a break.
A SENSE OF COMMUNITY AND SUPPORT
At the same time, in some cases, social media can provide much needed support. This is especially true for teens who struggle to gain acceptance from their peers. Dr. Jonathan Singer, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Associate Professor at the Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work, points out that social media offers a network of support for adolescents, especially in high school, who feel isolated from others. “Today, people can go online and find communities of support – not just from other kids, but also adults who can provide a sense of mentoring about how to navigate their lives.” Social media can help provide an accepting community for teens who have interests that differ from what is accepted as “cool.”
This concept applies to mental health disorders, as well. Through the use of online forums like Facebook groups, teens can find support groups for people who struggle with depression, anxiety, or any other mental health disorder. These support groups can be a great resource for teens who are learning to cope with their feelings. Although she recommends seeking professional help in person, Dr. Durlofsky says these groups can be a great starting point, especially for teens who are not yet ready to talk to someone face-to-face about their concerns. Resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Facebook page (www.facebook.com/800273talk) can be an important educational tool for supporting teens who are looking for help.
SO, WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Educating your teen about social media use: If your teen is a heavy social media user, it can be helpful to talk to them about potential mental health effects. It is important to remember that many teens may not see anything wrong with the way they use social media. Dr. Singer advises being sensitive your teen’s point of view. “Many kids aren’t going to see themselves as having a problem,” he says. “It’s all inherently relational.” If your teen is having an emotional conflict, they may view their friends or their stress as the problem, instead of social media.
Try to approach the subject with an open mind by asking your child what they view as the problem. Once this conversation is open, you can ask them how they think social media may be affecting their mental health. Ask them if social media ever makes them feel bad, or if their technology habits ever affect their ability to sleep. If your teen struggles with a specific mental health disorder, you can suggest that they search for support groups that might help them understand what they are going through. In this way, you can both better understand their motivations behind using social media, and the ways that it may be exacerbating mental health concerns.
Exploring the world of social media – together: For parents of younger children, a good way to learn about social media is through the use of a joint account. Dr. Singer recommends creating a family account for a pet that can allow you to navigate the world of Instagram or Pinterest together. This is a great way for families to address potential effects of social media as they come up. For example, if your child is upset about not getting enough likes on a photo, you can ask your child why they feel this way and start a discussion about social media and self esteem. “Having this family account can be a great way of introducing kids to the internet, making sure that families are doing something together, and setting the ground rules,” says Dr. Singer. This activity allows both parent and child to learn about social media while creating a space for mental health awareness and education.
In today’s world of social media, the constant viewing of everyone else’s highlight reels can take a toll on our mental health. And as the internet increasingly becomes a place for teens to learn, chat, and meet friends, it is important to teach your teenager about tools they can use to identify and improve their mental health. By increasing your child’s mental health literacy, you can ensure that they learn to use social media in a healthy way.•
Based on Interviews with:
Jonathan B. Singer, Ph.D., LCSW, Associate Professor, Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work Founder and Host, Social Work Podcast, Executive Board Members, American Association of Suicidology
Paula Durlofsky, Ph.D., Educational Psychology, M.A., Counseling Psychology, Advanced Certification in Psychoanalytical-Psychotherapy, Psychoanalytic Center of PA, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Bryn Mawr, PA
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Cecelia Tamburro is a rising senior at Brown University, where she studies biology. She is interested in genetics and health education.
The world’s leading nonprofit health advocacy organization committed to transforming health through genetics and promoting an environment of openness centered on the health of individuals, families, and communities.
Exceptional Parent Magazine; September 2017