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How to Help Teens With the Negative Impacts of Social Media
Social media plays a significant role in everyday life for most teenagers. It helps them to stay connected to friends, find community with others and feel a sense of belonging. But how much is too much, and is it more harmful than beneficial?
According to Facebook’s own internal research—which was revealed by a former product manager in October 2021—social media can make young people feel better about themselves, but it can also have a detrimental effect on their mental health.
Teens who participated in surveys pointed to Instagram as increasing their anxiety and depression, and those who struggle with mental health said the platform made it worse. The leaked documents also highlighted how social media can exacerbate bullying, body image issues and other social pressures.
“The reality is that social media is part of the world we live in, and it’s not going away,” says Mari Radzik, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “We can’t just take away our kids’ phones or computers. It’s about figuring out how we can guide them on using and navigating these tools.”
Whether you’re a parent of a teen, pre-teen or even a toddler, good habits start early. Here are five tips to help children combat the negative impacts of social media.
1. Recognize any changes in behavior and offer to talk.
Has your child’s mood fluctuated? Are they eating differently? Sleeping more or less than usual? Are they isolating in their room? These are some signs parents should be aware of and be prepared to talk about. Dr. Radzik says parents can open a dialogue about their child’s social media use. She stresses the importance of using “I” rather than “you” statements.
Instead of, “You’re on Instagram way too much and that’s bad for you,” try, “I noticed this and I’m really worried. Can we talk about it?” If they’re not willing to talk at that moment, let them know you’ll be there when they feel ready.
2. Keep the communication open.
It’s normal for teens to deny or deflect when confronted about a problem. The key is to express your concerns, ask if they want to talk, offer to help and then leave it at that.
“Berating will make a young person shut down,” says Dr. Radzik. “Or sometimes parents will dig through their child’s social media accounts and that can feel invasive. The approach has to come from a place of caring and concern, rather than something punitive or accusatory.”
If it’s clear that social media is affecting a child’s mental well-being, parents could recommend taking a break to see how their child feels without it, or suggest deleting the account altogether. “There are some kids who can break the cycle, and sometimes it takes the parent to help with that,” says Dr. Radzik.
3. Set rules and boundaries early on.
Just like you wouldn’t give a car to your child without teaching them the rules of the road, Dr. Radzik advises parents to provide parameters before a teen begins to use social media. Think about how often and where they should be using their phones or computers: Is the dining table off limits? What about in their rooms with the door closed?
This can be tricky for parents, especially since teens need computers for school, acknowledges Sarah Voyer, LCSW, Lead Social Worker in the Division of Psychiatry. “A lot of times these are kids who are well behaved and high functioning, so their parents trust them with so much,” she says. “But putting in some kind of structure, where you limit the time when they have access, is important because of how harmful social media can be.”
4. Model the right behavior.
“As parents, ultimately, you only have control over yourself,” says Voyer. “So being conscientious of your own behaviors, whether that’s with phone usage or diet and health, is a big part of parenting. If you do something hypocritical, they’re going to see that.”
And the modeling starts young, even before children have their own phone.
“It can be problematic when children are given regular access to cell phones at an early age,” says Dr. Radzik. “I understand the need to use it at times, especially age-appropriate material. But as parents we need to encourage a curiosity of the world around them and use creativity tools rather than rely on social media all the time.”
5. Check in regularly.
Talking to children and teens about social media isn’t a one-time conversation. The key, Voyer says, is checking in frequently and being attentive and aware of your kids’ media use. Parents may want to ask their children how they use social media—is it to share updates with their friends, do they follow certain celebrities or influencers, are they seeking some kind of advice or help—and how they feel when they use it.
“Active, attentive parenting is crucial,” says Dr. Radzik. “I know it can be exhausting, but it’s our jobs as parents to be mindful of what our kids are doing and how we can help them feel confident, self-aware and resilient.”