Kids, Social Media and Mental Health

Like it or not, social media is part of our kids’ lives. And that’s not always a bad thing. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat can help kids make friends and forge a sense of identity.

At the same time, sharply rising rates of depression, anxiety and suicide in adolescents have some experts concerned. More research is needed on how social media affects mental health, but here are some reasons why social media and kids can be a dangerous combination—and ways to keep your child safe.

girl taking selfie

Adolescence is already a time of shaky self-esteem. On social media, kids share a carefully edited version of their lives (the highlight reel, if you will), but they don’t understand that everyone else does that too. “Kids are often putting a perfect version of themselves on social media, and their peers compare themselves to that,” says Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life licensed therapist Erin Harlow-Parker, APRN.

On the flip side, some kids use social media to put all their problems out there. They don’t realize they are oversharing or understand privacy issues (i.e., the fact that what they post never really goes away—even if they delete it). “Kids may also look for support from strangers online and receive a lot of misinformation,” says Harlow-Parker.

high school kids playing on their phones

Social media can lead to confusion about the quality of a relationship. “There are some kids who will say, ‘I had 400 likes on my last post,’ but they still feel lonely. They don’t actually have any friends to talk to,” says licensed therapist Jody Baumstein, LCSW.

“While social media can be a great way to connect with friends you don’t see every day, it is not a suitable replacement for face-to-face interaction,” says Baumstein. “Kids learn a lot from interacting with other people. It’s difficult to learn about body language and nonverbal cues, or how to survive awkward silence, if you’re always communicating through a device.”

Social media is also changing the way kids play or hang out. After all, it’s a lot easier to start a group chat than to make the effort to meet at the mall after school.

close up of kid looking at social media

There’s no one-size-fits-all set of guidelines for social media use, and the internet is constantly changing.

Keep the following points in mind when deciding what is right for your family:

  • Your child’s use of digital devices is a privilege, not a right. (Say it out loud, mom and dad.) You can and will take it away if not used appropriately.
  • Your child needs to be aware of the potential dangers online and to have clear and consistent boundaries.
  • You have a right to know what your child is doing and saying online. Let your child know from the beginning that you will be monitoring their online use. (Reading through your child’s social media accounts is not the same thing as reading their diary.)
  • You may want to consider monitoring your child’s phone with one of the many apps available.

Social media is a new reality of childhood, and it’s the modern parents’ job to monitor their kids’ use of it.

dad on phone at dinner table

You may not be a social media “influencer,” but you absolutely influence your child. Are you glued to your phone at all hours? Do you have a tendency to overshare your own problems or post negative comments? No one is perfect (and we’ve all probably lost our cool on Facebook once or twice), but be mindful of your own social media habits if you expect your child to do the same.

It’s also important to respect your child’s privacy on your own account. Think twice before posting that embarrassing photo of your potty-training 2-year-old (anything you share online lasts forever), and don’t post pictures of your older kids without their consent.

dad and son playing football

Social media isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and there is a lot of pressure for kids and teens to stay connected. But that doesn’t mean we can’t step away from it every once in a while.

If you aren’t willing to do a full digital detox, there are little things everyone can do that can make a big difference.

  • Limit push notifications. Go into your phone settings and only allow the notifications you really need. That way, you’re not getting interrupted when a long-lost friend posts a new photo on Facebook.
  • Leave your phone in your pocket or purse. Sometimes just having your phone on the table (even if you’re not using it) can be distracting.
  • Let yourself be bored. Boredom can be a good thing, leading to creativity and inspiration. “It’s good to let our minds wander a little instead of always being entertained by a device,” says Baumstein.
  • Play outside instead of online. The more time kids spend online, the less time they spend being active. It’s hard to be emotionally well if you’re not physically well.
  • Power-down 1 hour before bed. The blue light from screens (smartphones, tablets and computers) can make it difficult to fall asleep. Plus, it’s really easy to get sucked into your news feed, causing you to stay up later than you planned.

If your child has an injury or is showing signs of illness, call your doctor or visit an urgent care center. If your child has a life-threatening injury or illness, is having trouble breathing or is unconscious, call 911 and/or visit an emergency department immediately.