Whatever age you are, the holidays can be fraught with anxiety. But for today’s teens, the Christmas season may be particularly stressful, thanks to something most adults never had to deal with as adolescents: social media.
Over 90 percent of all teens report using social media sites such as Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, and 81 percent say they use it on a daily basis, according to a 2018 report released by social innovation lab Hopelab. Chances are, your kid is feeling pressure to document every moment of their Christmas or New Year’s on them, and the strain is showing: teens who spend more than three hours a day on social media are more likely to develop mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, according to a study published this past September in JAMA Psychiatry.
One big reason is today’s teens spend much less time with peers or family in person, and much more time connecting to others electronically through social media. These types of interactions are ultimately much less satisfying. “If a teen has a bad day and reaches for their iPad as an Oasis, it doesn’t provide the same type of emotional connection of an in-person hug,” explains Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, a Seattle-based pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. This can be particularly pronounced around holiday break time, when teens have much more free time and may use their social media feeds as their primary way of interacting, she adds.
Social media use can also take a big chunk out of a teen’s self-esteem. A 2017 Penn State study published in the journal Telematics and Informatics found that frequently viewing other people’s selfies led to college students feeling more poorly about themselves. “If you’re at home having a crummy day because you’ve been fighting with your parents and siblings, and all your friends are posting pictures of themselves looking fabulous and having a blast, you’re going to make yourself miserable,” notes Michael Redovian, MD, a psychologist at Akron Children’s Hospital. “Teens don’t always realize that what they’re seeing on social media isn’t necessarily reality, but someone else’s attempt to present their best self.”
Unlike adults, teens also have a much harder time turning social media off. “They’re still developing the frontal lobe of their brain, which is important for social inhibition,” explains Rebecca Berry PhD, a child psychologist at the New York University Langone Medical Center in NYC. Watching a friend’s TikTok video can actually trigger a surge of the feel-good hormone dopamine, making them less likely to want to stop. “They have much less of an ability than adults to put breaks on it and say, ‘I should stop and do my homework,” says Berry. “This dopamine rush just keeps them going, on and on, for hours.”
Part of the problem is also what teens aren’t doing when they are on social media. “All three of my girls are voracious readers, but there’s no doubt that the amount of time they spent immersed in books went down after they got iPads,” says Alissa Sklar, PhD, an educational consultant in Montreal and mother of three teens, Alex and Sophie, 20, and Maya, 16. “For many kids that I consult with, it seems that a lot of time spent watching Twitch videos and watching other people play games. I view it as an opportunity cost —they’re missing on things like being outdoors, hanging out with their family or friends in person, even sleeping to stay hooking into social media.” All of these activities can also help buffer against depression and anxiety.
How to set limits on your teen’s social media use
Experts agree that the biggest gift you can give to your kids this holiday season is to try to encourage them to mindfully use social media. “You don’t just want to blindside them and suddenly say, ‘Okay, we have all these new rules,’” explains Redovian. “But you do want to set boundaries.” Here’s how:
Teach mindful use of social media. Encourage your teen to be honest with themselves about how they feel and think when they’re on social media, says Berry. What makes them feel good about themselves, and what makes them feel anxious, sad or jealous? “You want to encourage things that are positive, like posting pictures of them with their friends, but help them disengage from interactions that make them unhappy,” she explains. You can also encourage them to try apps like Headspace and Smiling Mind, which offer easy meditation and mindfulness exercises.
Set yourself up as an example. “If you don’t want your kids glued to their phones, you shouldn’t be, either,” says Swanson. Keep texting to a minimum when you’re with them, and if you are using your phone, explain why (for example, you’re looking up directions) so your teens understand why you’re checking your device.
Monitor appropriately. When your teen is just starting out on social media, it’s reasonable to keep an eye on their accounts. “It’s a way to teach them to be successful communicators — for example, responding to someone who says something positive to them, and avoiding cyberbullies and deflecting negative comments,” explains Swanson. But at some point, she stresses, you need to let them navigate the Wild West of the internet and social media on their own. “Teens need to learn on their own about impulse control,” adds Sklar. “I’ve found it’s much more productive when I sit down with my girls and look at their Instagram account with them, so they feel like they’re inviting me in — I’m not invading their privacy.”
Don’t banish social media entirely. Ninety percent of teens who suffer from depression report having gone on line for more information and to find support, according to Hopelab’s report. “There is some research that no social media use tends to worsen teen depression, since they see a lot of their friends using it and feel isolated,” explains Redovian. In fact, some teens even find that it’s useful when they’re going through a tough time. When Sklar’s twins, Alex and Sophie, experienced anxiety in high school, they found that going online helped them cope. “They went on Tumblr and found a whole community of kids grappling with the same emotions they were,” she recalls. In fact, the Hope Labs report found that almost a third of teens dealing with moderate to severe depressive symptoms found that using social media made them feel better.
Create social media-free zones. Your teen isn’t necessarily going to police themselves, so it’s up to you to set boundaries, says Berry. Don’t allow electronic devices at meals or in bedrooms, and set strict limits about when they’re not welcome (for example, when you’re out at a party or other event). Finally, try to make a couple hours each day about spending time with family and friends, not about social media. “The best thing you can do is to have them turn off their phones and iPad for a couple hours while you do an activity together,” she recommends. “It gets them off of electronics and gets you all connecting as a family, which is what the holidays are all about.”