Want to Keep Your Kids Safe While They Use Social Media? Here’s What You Need to Know

There has been an elephant sitting in each of our homes for several years, yet no one has been able to effectively address or tame it. It sneaks into your children’s bedrooms, sometimes at all hours of the night. It disrupts even the simplest of communication between you and your children because it is so enticing and too difficult to resist. It sabotages academic momentum and success, and it poisons interpersonal relationships. And yet, it is equally beneficial as it brings people together, enabling us to overcome the separation of hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles between us. As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated, in many ways it offered a resuscitative lifeline to hundreds of thousands of people when we were not able to interact with others in person. People who share common passions and interests bond because of this powerful beast, and those belonging to traditionally marginalized populations, like those related to race, culture, religion, and sexual and gender minorities find strength through the connections and relationships they forge that they may have otherwise struggled to find in the in-person world. And therein lies the difficulty-social media is a very powerful tool for all of us, but this is particularly true for our children, whose developing brains are vulnerable to the power of this world of communication. On May 23, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory about the possible negative impact social media is having on the mental health of our youth. While acknowledging the benefits of this communication tool, Dr. Murthy leaves little doubt about the dangerous impact it is having on our children’s emotional wellbeing, going so far as to state, “There is growing evidence to suggest that social media use may harm the developing brains of children….potential health effects include increased symptoms of depression, anxiety, ADHD, self-harm, and eating disorders.” Finding a balance that will grant our children access to exciting worlds of appropriate information, social interaction, and discovery while utilizing commonsense guidelines to keep them safe is the key to ensuring our children of all ages maintain their physical and emotional wellbeing.

There’s no denying the positive aspects of social media. People who share interests use it as a gathering space to exchange ideas, solve problems, explore different forms and expressions of art, or simply to connect over a shared sense of humanity. Members of traditionally marginalized groups find safety and validation in social media platforms. In fact, according to Dr. Murthy, studies have found that people in these groups experience improved mental health and wellbeing because of the ability to share their collective experiences with one another. For those children, teens, and young adults who struggle to navigate the social nuances among their peers, utilizing virtual worlds of gaming, movies, and other forms of entertainment provides a comfortable setting in which to test and flex their social skills. When friends from summer camp want to get together but cannot physically come together, FaceTime, SnapChat, and other platforms provide them with an excellent alternative. YouTube and other platforms offer helpful tutorials about everything from curricular content to how-to-fix-it projects around the house. And we all know there is nothing you can’t find on Google. Given all the benefits of social media, it’s hard to understand why it would have such a negative impact on the mental health of our children’s developing brains.

According to the Surgeon General’s report, adolescents between the ages of 10-19 years old experience “a highly sensitive period of brain development [during this stage of their lives].” This is the time in their development when engagement in risk-taking behaviors reach an all-time high, and when their well-being is subjected to the greatest shifts. It is also the point in their growth when early signs of depression and anxiety begin to emerge. Equally important is the fact that personal identity and a sense of one’s self worth start to take form. The adolescent brain becomes particularly susceptible to peer pressure, opinions, and comparisons. With these conditions serving as a fragile foundation, it should not come as a surprise that the frequent use of social media may be tied to specific changes in the adolescent brain in an area called the amygdala-the part of the brain responsible for emotional learning and behavior- as well as the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control, emotional regulation, attention and adjusting social behavior. The latter is the part of the brain that is most affected by ADHD, so it makes sense that kids who have been diagnosed with ADHD are even more susceptible to the negative impacts of social media use.

Studies about the risks related to the use of social media are extremely telling. In one research experiment involving a significant number of children, ages 12-15 years old, scientists discovered that the use of social media for more than three hours per day “doubled the risk of poor mental health outcomes.” In a separate study, social media was associated with a negative impact on the mental health of adolescent girls and those children who already struggled with mental health challenges prior to using social media. Yet another experiment involving 11,000 14-year-old adolescents showed that an increase in social media use predicted poor sleep, online harassment, poor self-body image, low self-esteem, an increase in depressive symptoms, all of which affected girls more than boys.

Most parents worry about the impact social media is having on their children, particularly when it comes to self-esteem, harassment, depression, anxiety, and exposure to explicit content. Their concerns are valid. When allowed to go unchecked and used improperly, social media is a fertile ground of very real and present danger to its unsuspecting young users. Cyber bullying is just as painful as the bullying that takes place in the hallways and the playgrounds. The anonymity of this means of virtual abuse makes it very easy to post inappropriate content consisting of language and photo or video images. By their own admission, designers of social media apps created them in such a way that their platforms and algorithms are addictive and entice users to delve further and further into the virtual realm. Worse yet, social media platforms are a feeding ground for predators who exhibit inappropriate behaviors or more concerning, lure young users into engaging in sexually explicit activity or participation in illegal activities including the sale and distribution of drugs.

The adverse effects of social media trickle into daily life. In speaking with many of the families I work with, so many note the disruptive nature of social media. Family meals are dotted with bleeps, bells, and bloops, enticing youngsters to reply immediately to a text, Instagram post, or Facebook message. Conversations between parents and children, friends, and students and teachers are interrupted for the same reason. Sleep patterns can be all but destroyed when phones are allowed to remain in kids’ bedrooms after the lights are turned off for the night. Concentration and focus are next to impossible when these devices are not removed from one’s workspace or at least switched to airplane mode. The fear of missing out-FOMO- is a very real concern and can lead to increased anxiety. Equally as concerning is the pressure adolescents and teens feel to “keep up” with their peers. These vulnerable users do not understand that the content shared on their peers’ social media posts frequently present an image of perfection or ideal scenario, but the reality is not every day is perfect and at some point, we all face challenges. These difficulties aren’t exciting and frequently cause the users angst, so by posting an overly exaggerated positive version of themselves, they give others -and themselves- a false sense of satisfaction that life could not be better. The result? Viewers have a misguided notion of the quality of life they should be leading and failing that means their lives are less noteworthy. The implications of this mindset can be devastating and sometimes fatal.

Younger children and adolescents are not the only demographics who are at risk of having problems related to social media use. In a study in which a specific social media platform was introduced to multiple colleges, this platform was directly tied to an increase in depression and anxiety among college-aged students. If there is such a strong impact on the mental health of college students whose minds are more developed, imagine the implications for children and adolescents who are at an even more vulnerable stage of brain development.

The challenge that lies before us is to determine a plan of action that will enable our children, adolescents, and teens to engage with social media in a way that simultaneously promotes curiosity, social interaction, and personal growth in an emotionally and physically safe manner. This is easier said than done, since there is no one-size-fits-all answer.