Social media use continues to grow in the United States, and the audiences are getting younger.

According to an October 2021 national poll, 32% of parents with children between the ages of 7 and 9 said those children used social media apps. The number was 49% for children between the ages of 10 and 12.

Social media can be positive, allowing people to stay connected. But it can negatively affect children, too — especially amid COVID-19, when there is less opportunity for in-person interaction.

Mental health is a particular concern. Too much social media use can affect the mental health of children, adolescents, and teens.

“It’s not the same kind of connectedness that we might have had individually, one-on-one,” says Dr. Justin Schreiber, DO, MPH, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist at UPMC and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh.

“It’s not really connecting to people in that same way. I think it develops a lot more of these kinds of superficial connections that make it harder when you need support or when you might be struggling with something.”

Here are some of the biggest mental health challenges associated with social media, and how parents and children can use social media in a positive way.

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Mental Health Impacts of Social Media on Kids

Excessive screen time, including excessive social media use, can have a negative impact on the mental and physical health of children and adolescents.

According to an analysis in Frontiers in Human Dynamics, too much screen time could cause mental health burdens like:

  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
  • Concentration problems.
  • Obsessive behaviors.
  • Irritability.
  • Isolation.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Screen fatigue/social media fatigue.

“What we’re seeing is they’re often feeling overwhelmed with it and not really sure how to really address it or look for support,” Dr. Schreiber says of children having social media difficulties.

Social media platforms are fertile grounds for dangerous behaviors that could put children and adolescents at risk.

Cyberbullying

Children and adolescents are using the internet and social media more during COVID-19. Because of that, the risk of cyberbullying appears higher, according to the International Journal of Criminology and Sociology.

Like traditional bullying, cyberbullying can harm children’s mental health — including a higher risk for depression and suicide. Some studies have suggested that cyberbullying can have an even larger negative impact than traditional bullying.

Cyberbullies can hide behind anonymity, and cyberbullying may last for a longer amount of time. The wider scope of the internet also means cyberbullying can happen at any time instead of just during school hours. Cyberbullying behavior can include posting violent videos or sexual content, anonymously insulting people, and more.

Negative body image

Although social media can provide access to examples of positive body image, the reverse is also true.

Children, teens, and young adults may feel pressure to live up to the examples of people they see on photo-sharing apps. This can cause anxiety and depression and may even lead to dangerous behavior, such as eating disorders.

A 2021 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health researched the link between social media and body image. The study reported an association between how often people compared themselves to people they followed on social media and feeling dissatisfied with their own bodies.

“Body image gets a lot of attention, but I don’t think people fully understand the level of how that’s impacted (by social media),” Dr. Schreiber says. “Not just how we take pictures of ourselves or how we dress, but also about how we eat, about things we do to ourselves. I don’t think people realize just kind of the extent of that modeling that occurs because of what they can see there.”

‘Modeling’ mental health conditions

One problem that Dr. Schreiber says he is seeing more often is people who are mirroring or modeling symptoms of mental health conditions they saw on social media platforms.

According to a report from Disease in Childhood, the number of children and adolescents showing symptoms of tic disorders was increasing during COVID-19. Those symptoms were also appearing at a much later age than is typical. The report said increased anxiety could be causing the tic increase, but also pointed to social media as a potential cause. Some social media platforms showcase influencers who have symptoms of tic disorders.

“There’s been a large presentation of adolescents who have presented with what appear to be tics, and often you’re seeing that there’s a lot of people discussing that on (social media),” Dr. Schreiber says. “And so, the question is, is that revealing more tic disorders, or is that, in fact, kind of promoting this copycatting type appearance of some of these behavioral health concerns?”

Tic disorders are just one example. Experts have warned against self-evaluating for any mental health condition based on what you see on social media.

Helping Kids Have a Positive Social Media Experience

The social media experience doesn’t have to be negative. Social media can help children and adolescents stay connected with their friends — which is important in the age of remote learning. It also can be a good outlet for news.

The challenge is being able to ensure your children use social media positively. It can be difficult to monitor all of their social media use when they’re spending so much time at home. And it’s also harder to keep track of who they’re interacting with.

That’s why it’s important for parents to stay on top of their children’s online habits as much as possible.

“Having more of that ability to have these conversations about social media use, being able to check in on social media use, is really critical,” Dr. Schreiber says. “Because feeds can very quickly switch from something that might have been more positive to something negative.”

Dr. Schreiber suggests parents can take several steps to try to help their kids avoid the pitfalls of social media use.

  • Establish ground rules. Set guidelines for how often they use social media and which platforms they can use. A good time to do this is when they get their phones in the first place. “Come up with social media contracts, (saying this) is a privilege more than a right,” Dr. Schreiber suggests. If parental controls are an option, make use of them.
  • Keep open communication. Ask children about their experiences online. Talk to them about what they’ve seen or done on social media. Ask them if they’ve had any problems at all.
  • Get them to take a break. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry recommends limiting screen time as much as possible. If you see your children using social media excessively, ask them to log off. Another way to encourage taking a break is by turning off all screens during family time — for example, during meals — and an hour before they go to bed each night.
  • If you think they might need help, don’t hesitate. Sometimes, it may be difficult to spot the signs of mental health burdens. But keep an eye out for any changes in behavior or mood. If you notice a change, take action — whether it’s having a conversation with them yourself or by scheduling an appointment with a licensed expert.

Dr. Schreiber recommends using the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry for guidelines on social media use. Also, don’t hesitate to call your child’s pediatrician for advice or if you think your child may need to talk to someone.

“This is constantly changing,” Dr. Schreiber says. “It might seem like a lot, but it’s really important for us to be on top of that and how these can affect kids.”

The Behavioral Science Division at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh provides help to families with children who are experiencing a wide range of mental health challenges. To schedule an appointment, call 412-692-5100 or visit us online.

Sources

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Screen Time and Children. Link

American Academy of Pediatrics, Media and Children. Link

C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, National Poll on Children's Health, Sharing Too Soon? Children and Social Media Apps. Link

Isobel Heyman, Holan Liang, Tammy Hedderly, Diseases in Children, COVID-19 Related Increase in Childhood Tics and Tic-Like Attacks. Link

Barbara Jiotsa, Benjamin Naccache, Mélanie Duval, Bruno Rocher, and Marie Grall-Bronnec, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Social Media Use and Body Image Disorders: Association between Frequency of Comparing One's Own Physical Appearance to That of People Being Followed on Social Media and Body Dissatisfaction and Drive for Thinness. Link

Simangele Mkhize and Nirmala Gopal, International Journal of Criminology and Sociology, Cyberbullying Perpetration: Children and Youth at Risk of Victimization During COVID-19 Lockdown. Link

Apurvakumar Pandya1 and Pragya Lodha, Frontiers in Human Dynamics, Social Connectedness, Excessive Screen Time During COVID-19 and Mental Health: A Review of Current Evidence. Link

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