When I first entered practice in 1985, the term “social media” wasn’t even a thing yet. Now, of course, its a major issue in the lives of virtually everyone and in particular adolescents. It is a frequent topic that I discuss with parents.
A recent study in a British public health journal demonstrated some very troubling patterns here. They enrolled almost 10,000 children and followed them from ages 10-15 to > 16 years. Initial surveys collected data on social media sites and amount of usage reported, then after several years standardized mental health questionnaires measuring both well being and negative emotions were completed by the now young adult subjects.
In girls they found a clear and quite strong association of increasing media usage with more negative feelings and greater emotional difficulties in late adolescence. Interestingly, they found no such correlation among boys. Greater prevalence was demonstrated in homes of lower economic or parental educational achievement. Unsurprisingly, more social media usage increased sedentary lifestyle. Racial differences were inconclusive. Another non-factor was type of usage–“passive”(reading only) vs “active”(posting and responding)–girls did worse either way.
There may be several reasons for this observation. Girls seemed to make a greater effort at online presence and often put greater emphasis comparing themselves to perceived online personality or situations. “Likes’ and “hits” are viewed very directly as popularity in ways similar to public opinion polls. Online, as opposed to in person, conversation is more “indirect,” allowing less emotional commitment to the relationship, less effort at properly expressing oneself, and no opportunity to learn to judge facial expression, voice inflection, or body language which may result in a person with more limited social development. Needless to say, online interactions may increase risks of such negative interactions as stalking, bullying, or public shaming.
So–what’s a parent to do? As always, I say “you are your child’s best teacher and best toy.” Be a role model–don’t obsess with your phone and social media yourself. Use only at specific times and situations. Try not to walk into your home using the phone, no use of phone at meals or parent/child interactions interrupted(except true emergency, of course). Endeavor to develop ongoing activities of interest for your adolescent and take an interest in their participation. Spend time with them (a challenge–important part of adolescent development is to establish autonomy from parents, so don’t overdo it here; try to do things with them on their terms). Also I believe it is fine–almost essential— to place concrete time limits on phone/social media use, particularly in the evening when it can most commonly be an impediment to a good night’s sleep. I always counsel that cellphones NOT be kept in the teen’s bedroom overnight but rather in some fairly distant location in the house to avoid that frequent problem.
Thanks for following.