From TikTok to texting, screen time isn’t just a harmless diversion

“I love TikTok.”

This is an all-too-common response when our clinicians ask a young person, “What do you like to do in your spare time?”

In the six years since it began, the short-video social media app TikTok has exploded to more than 1 billion daily users. It’s one of the most popular social media platforms being used by youth today, with Snapchat and Instagram close behind. (Facebook is for the “old folks,” don’t you know.)

Isn’t it just the current fad that someday, we’ll look back on and laugh that it worried us so? After all, in the 1950s, Elvis Presley’s hip gyrations were scandalous and in the 1960s young men had long hair and women started wearing pants to work. We survived all that. And there’s no arguing that technology has allowed for many advances in science, medicine, education and industry.

Mary Alexandre and Jaime Lehane
Mary Alexandre and Jaime Lehane

While that is all true, social media and electronics use by young people is very different, say local experts who work with children throughout Newport County. For one thing, people tend to say things in texting and on social media that they might never say if face to face.

“It really is one of those things we’re all very concerned about,” said Marcia Tryon, LMHC, the manager of children and family services at Newport Mental Health. “We’re seeing an increase in anxiety in our clients, almost like a social anxiety. There’s a lot of work to calm these kids down from heightened anxiety over the meanings of texts, the way things are worded, or the absence of an immediate response to their text to someone else.” Does a text message come through in all caps, with exclamation points and emojis (symbols)? Why didn’t my friend respond to me right away?

It goes beyond texting, too. Kids now track each other’s locations on their apps. Can you imagine what it’s like for them if all their friends can be seen on screen at someone’s house on a Friday night and they weren’t included?

While an adult brain can understand that texts (or emails, for we dinosaurs) can be difficult to put into context and easily misunderstood, the young brain does not. The limbic system, the part of the brain involved in behavioral and emotional responses, is not fully developed in an adolescent.

The many aspects of addictive social media and electronic use are a concern nationally, as well. The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently awarded the American Academy of Pediatrics a $2 million grant to create a National Center of Excellence on Social Media and Mental Wellness.

The center will focus on three priorities: education and resources around the risks and benefits of social media, to develop and disseminate information, guidance and training on the impact that social media use as on children and explore clinical and social interventions that can be used to prevent and mitigate the risks.

“There are benefits to social media use, but there are clearly risks, too – especially when it comes to mental health,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “This new center will help our families better protect our children from lurking dangers.”

What kinds of things are your kids up to?

One of the more alarming social trends Marcia and her staff here at Newport Mental Health see is the proliferation of “self-diagnosis”: I have ADHD, I have anxiety, I am bipolar. I have a #trauma response.

“One of the scariest things is that children and young people use TikTok for mental health advice. They are diagnosing themselves, based on videos and influencers. They become desensitized to the actual words they are using,” she said. A declaration such as “I can’t do life today” may result in a child being sent to the emergency room for suicidal ideation, but they panic when they realize the impact of what they have said. I didn’t really mean it!

One eighth-grader told Marcia that she gets a lot of health support from TikTok, that the influencers who disappear to take a mental health break are “so inspiring.” This young person thinks that’s all she needs – you have a problem, you take a break. It disappears.

“What they don’t realize is that they have no idea what that influencer has gone through or what kind of help they’ve gotten, if any, while they are away,” she said. ”What they don’t see is the reality that you need to put in the work to achieve better mental health.”

A young person can also find a “tribe” of like-minded online friends to commiserate with. While connection to others can be a powerful positive tool, in this case, it’s negative reinforcement feeding off each other and blowing things out of proportion. It can even be more sinister, as youth can find advice and tutorials in dangerous behavior such as drugs, cutting, eating disorders and more.

And young people get lost in social media, for hours.

Statistics say 97% of adolescents are on the internet and social media each day.

Older adolescents may do better at understanding the subtleties of texts, but they face complex social relationships exacerbated by social media. A trending topic such as #filters seem innocent enough but type it and you’ll be bombarded with videos of young people using rapidly changing filters to distort their looks until they achieve perfection, which is of course, unattainable.

One high school teacher interviewed said, “It warps your sense of what you should look like and what people should look like, and it’s a very real issue.” She pointed out that she put a subtle filter on a photo of herself that she had originally been happy with – and then based on the filter effects, hated the original. And this is an adult who knows what is happening and knows better. Children and teens grow up thinking they are never good enough, and for someone with depression or self-esteem issues, comparisons and isolation can be devastating.

But here’s the thing. Social media and electronics are not going away.

Social media platforms are privately owned and are driven by algorithms to maximize user engagement for profit, the HHS said in its grant announcement. Therefore, they can and do expose young people to content that may not be appropriate; can promote unhealthy social comparisons; can exacerbate social isolation, anxiety, self-doubt, and depression; and can enable harassment, stalking and cyber bullying. Adolescent girls are most at risk of these algorithms reinforcing negative thoughts about their body image. Worse yet, something inappropriate or fabricated can go viral, devastating the teen’s life.

So what are we to do?

Lecturing young people is rarely effective and permanently removing social media isn’t necessarily the answer, either.

”Education and guidance are the keys to bringing it all into a better perspective,” Marcia suggests.

The creation of the national center can be a positive step toward better mental health for youth, Marcia and those of us at Newport Mental Health believe, if it is educational for all ages and comes up with concrete direction. Teach a child how their brain develops. Let them know what their addiction to electronics and social media can do to harm their brain in the long run.

A few ideas for parents and caregivers:

• Take a break from your own social media for a time and show your children how you fund fulfillment in other ways, and they can too.

• Stop texting your children during the school day! Teachers and staff report this is a real concern. Many adolescents have phones with them but shouldn’t be using them in school. If a parent texts (with a non-emergency message), it’s very tempting for a child to check it out.

• Schools, childcare programs and summer and vacation camps can create non-electronics rules. There’s one camp, she mentioned, which allows the use of video games to an extend but then requires the campers to go outside and “play” an age-appropriate version of the game together – getting them fresh air, away from their screens and interacting with each other.

• Read “Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids - and How to Break the Trance,” by Nicholas Kardaras, Ph.D. Kardaris explores how constant use of electronics has profoundly affected the brains of an entire generation.

Jamie Lehane is president and CEO of Newport Mental Health in Middletown. Peace of Mind, which is co-written with Mary Alexandre, runs in The Daily News and online at

This article originally appeared on Newport Daily News: From TikTok to texting, screen time isn’t just a harmless diversion