Summertime leads to free time, down time, and screen time, which means now is a good time for parents of teens and preteens to talk to their children about phone use, social media habits, and boundaries.
Gerta Bardhoshi, professor of counselor education in the University of Iowa College of Education and director of research and training in the Scanlan Center for School Mental Health, shares concerns and provides suggestions for helping your kids develop healthier social media habits.
Q: What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of adolescents using social media?
A: Social media can indeed provide a powerful platform for social connection, support, and emotional intimacy for teens. Especially for teens who feel marginalized or are socially isolated, social media can provide newfound opportunities for positive interactions and a sense of community. For teens experiencing social anxiety, social media may provide opportunities for practicing and engaging in social interactions in a more controlled and less stressful format.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint specific apps or sites all kids should avoid, we do know that the amount of time spent on social media is linked to poorer mental health. The mood prevalent while using social media also seems to be key because adolescents who experience feelings of envy while scrolling through social media experience more negative emotional outcomes.
Social media can become a negative incubator, as algorithms that promote negative content can steer teens into communities that fuel hate. Exposure to problematic online content and behavior is linked to an increased psychological risk for teens, especially for those who have existing vulnerabilities. Teen behavior on social media also presents serious privacy concerns because it can be stored and shared by others, often with long-lasting consequences that few teens intuitively understand.
Q: What type of social media exposure presents psychological concerns for adolescents?
A: Content that encourages illegal or risky behaviors, including self-harm, disordered eating, and cyberhate toward particular groups or people, present clear red flags. Being a victim of online bullying can also be particularly severe for teens and is associated with an increased risk for depression, suicidal ideation, and self-harm.
Using social media to compare oneself to others and seek approval also presents psychological risks, especially for teens who struggle socially. If your teen is spending excessive attention to posted photos and the feedback to photos, it might be a good time to consider an intervention. Teens struggling with low self-esteem, poor body image, or disordered eating might be particularly vulnerable to this type of social media use.
Q: What are signs of problematic social media use?
A: When teens themselves realize their social media use is excessive, feel unable to curb it, or consistently lose track of time and neglect other activities because of use, it is a crucial time for parents to step in.
Teens with problematic social media use may spend less time personally interacting with peers, on schoolwork and extracurricular activities, or fail to keep up with family responsibilities. Another warning sign may be if your child is experiencing more negative emotions like irritability and anger.
Teens may need a complete recalibration of their social media use at this point. Along with setting limits, finding alternative strategies to cope and socially engage are also important, especially if social media is your teen’s primary emotional and social outlet.
Q: What can parents do to help reduce their child’s social media use, especially during the summer?
A: Setting social media boundaries and limits is possible and is best done in collaboration with your child. Having a discussion about some of the negative effects of unlimited social media use and working with your child to identify potential harmful content can empower both parents and kids to identify solutions. For some adolescents, setting a specific time limit for social media platforms might be appropriate. Parents can also install apps that block certain websites, as well as enforce time limits. Establishing specific times during the day that are “social media free” or “technology free” for the entire family also can discourage excessive use.
Another important step is curbing social media and phone use around bedtime. Sleep is an essential component of neurological development for adolescents and necessary for healthy psychological functioning. Teens who engage in technology and social media use around bedtime experience more sleep disruptions. Having a phone in the bedroom, even if the teen is not using it, can also affect sleep quality. Consider establishing a screen downtime at least an hour before bedtime for your teen and setting up an overnight device zone away from bedrooms to store all family devices.
Q: Do you have any other practical advice for parents?
A: Parents are powerful models. Examining your own attitudes and use of social media is important. We know this affects how teens approach social media. For example, distractedly using social media in the presence of teens and frequently interrupting personal interactions to look at your phone can send the message that it is an acceptable behavior. Establishing healthy boundaries around phone and social media use can benefit the entire family.
In addition, educating teens about social media use and considering their maturity level is important. Children aged 10 to 14 might require additional assistance in safely navigating social media and may need more extensive monitoring. Expect some pushback from your child if you are setting new limits, but also trust yourself in establishing reasonable boundaries that protect their sleep, mental health, and emotional development.
Creating a sustainable culture of mental health and well-being is a top priority at the University of Iowa. As part of this effort, university experts provide insight and guidance into the many aspects of how to integrate work and life so we can best care for ourselves while also caring for others. Information about a range of topics regarding mental health is available at mentalhealth.uiowa.edu.