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The Problem

Prevent Social Media From Harming Your Children, It’s getting worse by the day. Kids and teens are spending more time than ever on social media, their cute little faces glued to the screen, and the number of hours spent online rising sharply since the pandemic, according to research organization Common Sense Media.

They found that overall screen use among teens and tweens increased by 17 percent from 2019 to 2022 — growing more rapidly than in the four years prior. On average, daily screen use went up among tweens (ages 8 to 12) to five hours and 33 minutes from four hours and 44 minutes, and to eight hours and 39 minutes from seven hours and 22 minutes for teens (ages 13 to 18).

New York Times writer Melinda Moyer says that a particular concern is an upswing in social media use among children ages 8 to 12, on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook, even though these platforms require users to be at least 13.

Diana Garber, the founder of Cyberwise, says, “The huge number of kids using social media when they’re so young — it makes me want to cry. These social media apps are not designed for children.”

“You worry if it’s replacing activities, like sleep, family time, reading, chores — other things that are positive for kids,” world-renowned child psychiatrist Dr. Devorah Heitner says. “That’s definitely a real concern.”

In fact, social media is a big reason teen depression has increased over the last decade. Surveys show that teen depressive symptoms and suicide showed exponential increases, especially among females.

Teenagers who spent more time on social media were more likely to have mental health issues. Those who spent more time on unplugged activities, like in-person social interaction, exercise, sports, homework, and books were less likely to experience these issues.

Over the last decade, this theory has been confirmed by more research linking teenagers’ use of social media with increased depression. For example, in a 2018 study, 14-to-17-year-olds who used social media seven hours a day were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression, and have been treated by mental health professionals, or taken medication for psychological or behavioral issues.  

They contend that while teen social media use has risen by almost 97%, mental health concerns have also risen. Between 2007 and 2018, social media may have contributed to an increase in the teen suicide rate almost by 146%. Social media use may contribute to:

  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Body dysmorphia
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Self-harm
  • Suicide

The Solution

So, what’s the solution? There is no definitive answer. Social media and teenagers are tied together as tight as a drum.

One exercise Ms. Graber does with her students — and that parents could also try at home — is to ask kids to analyze how they spend their time over the course of a single day. Often, “they are kind of surprised at how much time they spend on screens,” she said.

Then, she asks them to create a bucket list of 25 things they would do if screens didn’t exist and then suggests they take a 24-hour vacation from screens, encouraging them to accomplish some bucket-list tasks during that time.

Parents may also want to sit down with their kids and create a technology agreement, outlining various details including when and where kids can use screens and for how long. She said younger kids should watch YouTube only when a parent is in the room with them.

Dr. Heitner said that parents should explain the importance of actual reality vs. virtual reality and that what kids share on social media will reflect on them.  It might also be helpful to discuss the performative nature of social media so that kids understand that people “post when they’re having a really good time, or when they’re having a really good hair day, and that doesn’t necessarily reflect their constant lived reality.”

Whenever possible, parents should try to use screens with their kids, too. When adults use platforms with their children, they have an opportunity to share their values and expectations. “Get online with them and ask questions and be curious and try not to be judgmental,” Ms. Graber said. “Just like you would watch out for them on the corner or at the park, you watch out for them online.”

If all else fails, parents can monitor their children with apps like Bark, KidLogger, or Google Family Link. But do you have the time, and do you really want to spy on them? Maybe you need to make time if you think your child needs help or shows signs of withdrawal and isolation.

How about a good old-fashioned talk? Encourage open communication. It has always been difficult to have a heart-to-heart with a teen. But it’s even more important today, so they won’t seek help from someone you don’t know, or they might not know on social media.