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Social Media & Your Children: What You Need To Know

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Author name: Lee Health


children social media graphic

First, it was television that took our attention. Then it became portable media players. As technology continued to progress, so did our engagement with media. MP3 players, digital audio players, and the leap from the Walkman to the iPod, and well, we all know the rest of the story when smart devices became all the rage.

According to a 2018 survey, 45 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds are online almost constantly. Around 97 percent use a social media platform, such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.

But what impact does social media use have on teens? Two recent studies highlight the potential harms and benefits associated with teens who use social media.

One study reveals that children who grow up checking social media more often are becoming more sensitive to feedback from their peers. The other study showed that higher levels of social media use were linked with increased depressive symptoms in adolescents.

Jason Sabo, Ph.D., a pediatric developmental and behavioral specialist with Lee Health, helps us make sense of the research and what we need to know to safely navigate the pros and cons of social media.

How concerned should parents be about their kids’ use of social media?

“The pandemic brought about a huge increase in the use of the internet and smart devices,” says Dr. Sabo. “As the pandemic swept through the world, the limits on social interactions to contain its spread led to digital interactions replacing in-person contact. For kids, this meant connecting with their friends by texting, group messaging apps, social media sites, and so on.”

That was a good thing, helping kids to connect with friends during the pandemic, at least at first. But now, three years later, while the crush of COVID cases has leveled off, more kids than ever are using social media more often than they were before the pandemic.

But Dr. Sabo notes that as the COVID restrictions lessened, we didn’t reevaluate the use of electronics.

“I see in my practice many kids who are addicted to social media,” Dr. Sabo says. “They have a difficult time putting electronics down, putting the phone down. Over time, that tends to become their security blanket and becomes their source of reinforcement for how they feel about themselves.”

The brain's reward center

Dr. Sabo says the attachment to social media relates to the brain’s reward center.

“Social media has a reinforcing aspect,” he says. “Using it activates the brain’s reward center to release dopamine, the feel-good chemical that hooks users into returning over and over. It makes you enjoy that specific activity, which makes it so addicting.”

In that study of teenagers who habitually checked their social media, published in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers found the teens had a “distinct trajectory” in the parts of the brain that rule social rewards and punishments. The brains of teens who didn’t use social media as often or as much didn’t show the same rate of change.

The study’s authors suggest the brain is changing in a way that is becoming increasingly more sensitive to social feedback over time. In other words, the need to check social media more often was associated with increases in the brain’s sensitivity to social feedback.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Eva Telzer, told CNN that while the changes are significant, they don’t strictly mean social media is causing them.

“We can’t make causal claims that social media is changing the brain,” Dr. Telzer said. “But teens who are habitually checking their social media are showing these pretty dramatic changes in the way their brains are responding, which could potentially have long-term consequences well into adulthood, sort of setting the stage for brain development over time.”

But the study does suggest that children may lack the ability to restrain themselves from using social media too much. Recent research shows over 50 percent of teens report at least one symptom of clinical dependency on social media.

READ: Pressures and Dangers of Social Media: A Personal Story

Yet, social media sites, in their best light, can also help foster meaningful social connections, Dr. Sabo says.

“This can be especially important for teens with marginalized identities, including racial, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities,” Dr. Sabo explains. “But it can become a problem when teens start to use the sites to compare themselves to others, seeking ‘likes’ and other metrics rather than healthy, successful relationships.”

This can lead to what Dr. Sabo calls “upward comparison.”

“So many kids base their identity off social media. When they go about comparing themselves to other people, they’re bound to find someone who’s doing better than they are,” he says. “That can lead to self-esteem issues because social media is not a realistic world.”

“Kids don’t have the ability to conceptualize and understand and recognize the danger that social media can present. It’s not good to try and base your self-worth on what you find on social media. It can have real consequences when you imagine that you fail to meet the expectations of an unrealistic world.”

Social media and depression

Case in point: A 2019 study, also published in JAMA Pediatrics, found a link between social media and depression in adolescents. The study’s authors reported that “repeated exposure to idealized images lowers adolescents’ self-esteem, triggers depression, and enhances depression over time. Furthermore, heavier social media users with depression appear to be more negatively affected by their time spent on social media.”

Dr. Sabo’s professional experience in the past few years supports those findings.

“Within Golisano Children’s Hospital, and from 2020 to 2021, we saw a 235 percent increase in the number of Baker Acts,” Sabo said. “That number then rose again in 2022 by 10 percent.”

The Baker Act is a Florida law that enables families and loved ones to provide emergency mental health services and temporary detention for people who are impaired because of their mental illness and who are unable to determine their needs for treatment.

“We know the signs, symptoms and impact of anxiety and depression, but social media can be a silent killer,“ Dr. Sabo says. “Parents aren’t seeing what kids are being exposed to on social media or how they are processing the information. To fight this, we really must nurture our relationships with our kids.”

Parents should be aware of the signs of depression, which often shows up as irritability rather than sadness in tweens and younger teens. Pay attention to whether your kids’ sleeping or eating habits are changing or if they no longer seem interested in activities they used to enjoy.

“I would say, in general, if (screen time) is interfering with sleep or other important areas of functioning and you’re seeing escalated types of mood symptoms, then there’s a problem,” Dr. Sabo says.

If your child is currently on social media or has been asking to join, it’s important to talk to them about what social media is, what rules you have for it and how it doesn’t always show an accurate picture of someone’s life.

Here are some tips on navigating the social media world

Establish a balance between time for screens, but not at the expense of time for physical activity and connecting with real people in real-time.

Watch for the warning signs of unhealthy tech usage. “Set a time in the evening when devices are off limits,” Dr. Sabo suggests. Note how your kids respond to that boundary. Do they push back when you set screen time limits?"

Keep an eye on the quality of your children's digital interactions. Are they accessing age-appropriate content? Social media accounts feature privacy settings. Are they appropriately set to restrict what strangers can see and who can contact your children? 

Walk the Talk. Adults can be just as tethered to technology as kids. Children not only tend to mirror our behaviors, but they also may feel like they are competing with our own devices for our attention. In one study, almost 50 percent of parents admitted that technology interfered in their interactions with their child multiple times every day.

Set boundaries for work time and family time.

Make technology a family affair. Be involved with your child's tech experiences. Playing or watching alongside your children offers several benefits. You'll be able to vet the content they are accessing, the child will learn more from the activity through your interaction, and you'll bond through the shared experience.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics

Lee Health's Pediatric Behavioral Health specializes in emotional, cognitive, and behavioral conditions affecting children and adolescents from ages 5 to 21. To schedule a consultation or make an appointment, call 239-343-6050

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