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How Parents Can Help Kids Manage Social Media

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
A sad child sitting on the floor

Youth are dealing with high levels of anxiety and depression. A new advisory from the Surgeon General warns that social media can pose a “profound risk of harm” to children and teens' mental health.

Last year, child-focused medical associations declared children’s mental health a national emergency. Earlier this year, a panel of experts – the U.S. Preventive Task Force – recommended children ages 8 to 18 to be screened for anxiety and depression, including at all pediatric primary care appointments.

Parents need more strategies than ever to help children cope. Clinical psychologist Kimberly Burkhart, PhD, of University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, says social media should be an area to consider when identifying strategies to manage children’s stress.

How Social Media Affects Children

“Age 12 and a half is the average age that a young person opens a social media account,” Dr. Burkhart says. “Research shows that the more time spent on social media is associated with increased anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and isolation.”

Parents often don’t recognize the pressures associated with social media.

“You’re hyperconnected and that creates a pressure to respond quickly, an expectation of others to respond quickly, and to essentially always be available,” Dr. Burkhart says.

“In addition, there’s the pressure to have perfect photos, well-written posts, keeping up with others in one’s social circle, and making comparisons to others related to physical appearance and popularity as measured by likes, friends or followers.”

Dr. Burkhart explains some of the reasons why spending excessive time on social media can have negative effects on social and emotional functioning:

  • There is less time for face-to-face interaction. As a result, there are fewer opportunities for direct positive feedback and for practice managing challenging social situations, such as conflict, in-person and in real time.
  • Children get less practice reading nonverbal cues and adjusting behavior based on the feedback that’s being received.
  • It damages self-confidence because the child isn’t seeing true representations of life, but rather created images that can distort perceptions of reality.
  • More time spent online increases chances of cyberbullying.

Parenting Strategies to Reduce Stress from Social Media

Dr. Burkhart offers these suggestions:

  • Keep lines of communication open. Work with your child by creating healthy boundaries in terms of screen time and types of social media. Discuss safety related to maintaining privacy and avoiding risky trends.
  • Talk about what’s within your comfort zone. Discuss ground rules with your child about posting, liking others’ posts, how and which comments should be ignored, and when people should be blocked.
  • Set limits. For example, phones should be put away at mealtime; screens should be turned off prior to bed.
  • Enforce good sleep habits. Screens impact the ability to get good quality sleep. The artificial light arouses your brain and disrupts the production of melatonin to induce sleep. “Sleep deprivation is linked to increased mental health symptoms, as it becomes harder to process challenging or upsetting situations rationally and to engage in productive problem solving,” Dr. Burkhart says.
  • Use parental controls. Modify permissions and monitor accounts until your child is developmentally mature enough to make such choices.
  • Model positive behavior. Be a role model by putting your phone down when you're sharing time together. When you disconnect, it also allows for increased quality time.
  • Encourage face-to-face activities. This increases a sense of belonging, which serves as a protective factor against negative self-esteem and depression.

How Much Involvement Is Too Much?

The term “helicopter parenting” was coined to describe parents who are hyper-focused on their child’s activities, schoolwork and relationships in an attempt to spare them from experiencing pain and to help them succeed.

This, too, can lead to anxiety, says Dr. Burkhart.

“It can lead to being overly dependent on parents, increased difficulty managing setbacks and a lack of opportunity to build problem-solving skills,” she says.

Helicoptering does have some positives in terms of keeping children on task, helping them achieve their goals and engaging them in positive activities. But kids need to learn how to manage disappointments and pain, which fosters resiliency.

“Listen to what your child needs, and take into account your child’s social, emotional, and behavioral functioning to determine the right level and type of involvement,” Dr. Burkhart says.

“Continue to communicate. It’s important to follow the child’s lead and to identify opportunities to foster ongoing positive parent-child interaction.”

Related Links

The team at the Rainbow Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry provides a full scope of psychiatric evaluation and treatment services, either directly or through referral to affiliated staff and programs. Learn more.