hether you call them iGen or Generation Z, today’s adolescents and young adults are connected online more than ever. Over the past few years, we have seen a significant spike in social media use among teenagers – and we have also seen a dramatic increase in teenage anxiety, depression and suicide rates over the same period of time. Why is this generation struggling so much? And what can parents do to help their teens adopt healthy attitudes toward social media use?
Why social media can pose challenges for teens
There are several factors at play with social media that can pose challenges for adolescents. Research shows that teenage girls are more vulnerable to these factors than boys are and tend to find themselves in cyberbullying situations more often.
1. Social media is an environment that promotes constant comparison with others. For teens with poor self-esteem, comparing their day-to-day reality with the carefully curated “highlight reels” of celebrities and influencers can increase their dissatisfaction with their lives.
2. Adolescents have a deep need to belong. Social media can stoke fear of missing out (FOMO) or, even more hurtful, a new concept, FOBLO:fear of being left out. Seeing picture after picture of your friends having a great time at a party you weren’t invited to can be really hard.
With all of these external pressures and internal emotional turmoil, teens can be vulnerable to seeing, and being influenced by, detrimental content online.
What is “detrimental content”?
Detrimental content, also called harmful content, is defined as any kind of posting on social media that is exposing and also encouraging viewers to engage in a self-destructive routine. Detrimental content is not compatible with mental well-being and can worsen mental illness. Examples include posts and videos highlighting mental health disorder-related symptoms in unhealthy ways, including promoting behaviors such as restricting food, binging and purging, cutting, or other self-destructive coping strategies. Detrimental content can make these maladaptive coping strategies seem inviting.
It’s important to know that no teenager starts out watching detrimental content on TikTok or another platform. Rather, they are gradually exposed, and because the platforms’ algorithms show you more of what you’re interested in, that exposure leads to more exposures, accelerating the problem.
How can parents protect their children from detrimental content online?
Here are three strategies, and lots of tips, to help your kids safely navigate the world of social media.
1. Start with prevention
Begin at a young age by limiting exposure, aiming for close to zero screen time in the preschool years and increasing gradually.
Monitor how your teen handles internet and social media use. What content is your teen following? Remember, there is helpful and healthy content on social media as well: It’s not all good or all bad. Is your teen moving toward uncontrollable hours? Is your teen invested in comparison culture?
Establish ground rules for social media use, such as those recommended by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:
1. Friend or follow your child on social media, reassure your child that interaction is not needed and give developmentally appropriate space.
2. No screens at dinner table – for anyone.
3. No screens after a certain time.
4. No social media during family time or until after homework and extracurricular activities.
5. Turn off all location services on the phone.
6. Parental control apps can be very helpful.
2. Walk your talk
Follow the same household social media rules you set for your teen.
If a problem develops, use the situation to start a conversation, rather than jumping straight to punishment.
3. Prepare your child for the road, not the road for your child
Despite your best intentions, you can’t monitor your teen at all times (nor would you want to).
Instead of focusing on protecting them, focus on preparing them to use social media responsibly, including internet safety basics like not sharing any private information online.
Give them the chance to make mistakes and come to you for help, so that by the time they are 16 or 17, they know how to protect themselves and be responsible online.
Social media can be helpful if you have a mature adolescent who is connecting with the right people and looking up the right things. The most important thing parents can do to help their teens navigate social media – or any challenge – is to invest energy each day in building a relationship of openness and honesty.
If you are dealing with feelings of depression, anxiety or chronic stress with your child or adolescent, a mental health professional can help you to develop the tools to help. Sometimes you could need to first speak to your primary care physician and then get a referral to a mental health professional and other times be able to seek out a mental health professional directly.
Feyza Basoglu, MD, is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist. She serves in the Inpatient Adolescent Mental Health Unit on Inova Fairfax Medical Campus for Inova Behavioral Health Services.