Like the sex talk and the drug talk, parents can now add another item to their hot-button list with kids: the social media talk.
“How to interact and manage what goes on on social media is like this whole new frontier,” said Sarah Caldwell, assistant clinical director at Teton Behavior Therapy. “This is the world that these adolescents are living in that looked very different for us when we were in high school. Our social connections and dynamics were just different.”
It’s true. From the development of smartphones to the rise of social media, means of connecting with others have changed. According to Statista, 72% of female internet users 15 and older have accessed Facebook, 56% Instagram, 36% Twitter, 24% Snapchat and 14% TikTok.
Carrie Kirkpatrick is a mother of two girls and the program director of Raising Girls, a Girls Actively Participating program that provides resources and events for parents.
She recalls when the iPhone was becoming popular around 2010.
“I had this gut feeling that it wasn’t right for my kids to have a phone, but I felt in the minority sometimes,” Kirkpatrick said. “I just kind of put together this panel to hear what’s the experience of girls today and how can parents support their girls, and it was just packed. And technology came up towards the end, and it got really heated in terms of people’s different opinions about whether you should have phones or not.”
Nowadays it’s not only a question of whether they should have phones but whether they should have social media accounts and, if so, how they should use them.
Social media does have its positives, such as connecting people and sharing information and issues on a global scale.
As a licensed clinical social worker, Caldwell sees it as a great way to find and distribute health resources. She’s seen a normalization and acceptance of mental illness, too, as individuals worldwide are able to share their experience and comfort others.
“I think that piece of connection, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, when everything was sort of new and we were really on lockdown, it did feel like a good way to connect,” Caldwell says. “But I think then you start to see sort of the fatigue of having that social connection only be virtual.”
It’s hard to imply causality between social media and its potential negative effects because there is no control group of kids who don’t have phones, Kirkpatrick said. She said it could be a chicken or egg scenario instead.
“What I’ve seen with people is that the girls who have a healthy self-concept aren’t seeking out those things that can be so damaging,” she says. “And the girls who don’t, like there’s so much available for them to look at to make themselves feel worse.”
Along with a negative self-image and normalization of harassment, social media use has been linked to sleep deprivation, bullying, anxiety, eating disorders, depression, cutting and suicidality in the most severe cases.
“Whatever they might have an interest in experimenting with or trying on or learning about is all ready in a nanosecond,” Kirkpatrick says. “All those things that our brains can do that aren’t healthy — as we cope with our self-esteem issues, as we grow up and try and navigate that — are so readily available in terms of ways we can harm ourselves.”
Kirkpatrick also points to “presentation anxiety,” where people take countless photos of themselves, select just a few to use, edit them to be more attractive and then measure themselves by the response.
“Popularity has always been something that kids are interested in, at least in high school, and now there’s a way to quantitate it,” Caldwell said. “How many likes did you get? How many followers do you have?”
And cyberbullies are unlike the high school bullies of days past.
“It used to be that you could go home, and the person who was bullying you or hurting you, you could turn them off. They weren’t in your life anymore,” Kirkpatrick says. “Now, it’s a 24/7 experience.”
While people of all ages and genders are prone to the side effects of social media, Kirkpatrick and Caldwell say young girls are most affected.
“Historically, there has been an objectification of women and their images. ... just in media in general,” Caldwell says. “I think that has crossed over to social media. So there are these additional pressures on women to present themselves in a certain way. ... We’re really, I think, seeing those ramifications in increases in anxiety and depression.”
Kirkpatrick said that girls, in general, are looking for social connections, belonging and validation more than boys and that “social media is a tool that amplifies, intensifies and kind of puts gasoline on what girls are already naturally wired to do.”
So what’s a parent to do when, as Kirkpatrick says, it’s a full-time job to protect your kids from the downsides of technology, be it bullies, negative self-image or exposure to pornography?
Kirkpatrick made contracts with her daughters regarding their social media use. She had passwords to their phones, set time limits through the parental control app Qustodio and prohibited sleeping with phones in their rooms.
“My girls will sometimes say to me, ‘You’re the only mom who doesn’t let us sleep with our phone in our room.’ I was like, ‘Well, what if we supplanted the word “cocaine” for the phone?’” she said, noting the addictive nature of technology. “So ‘You’re the only mom that doesn’t let me do cocaine in my bedroom at night.’”
She also recommends turning off notifications, leaving phones behind during family time and having 1 in 5 posts be something other than a selfie. She encourages parents to have regular conversations with their kids and to ask questions: What does a healthy daily life look like? How many hours do you think is appropriate to be on Instagram? How is it serving you to have Snapchat streaks with 130 people?
Caldwell of Teton Behavior Therapy said clinical treatment for social media addiction includes investigating what online interactions trigger symptoms like anxiety and depression, raising awareness around these interactions and employing behavioral strategies as they’d do for other addictions.
“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing too with the adolescents, it’s much harder for them to go completely silent on social media,” Caldwell says. “The reality is it’s where they are connecting with each other, and so helping them kind of monitor and find some moderation in how they use it.”
If keeping your children off of social media entirely sounds unthinkable, other solutions include unfollowing accounts that provoke unhealthy thoughts or retraining one’s reaction to triggering posts.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than 18 months not be exposed to any technology; those from 18 months to 5 years should be limited to one hour of supervised screen time a day; and those over 6 years should use technology at times that do not interfere with meals, sleep or family time.
“It does feel, in many regards, like the genie is just out of the bottle,” Kirkpatrick said. “And I don’t see us putting it back in. “The only way to take back control of your life is to now use the tools that are available to you.”
–Common Sense Media: A nonprofit that provides education and resources for safe technology and media use for families and children.
– Wait Until 8th: Advocate for waiting until eighth grade to give children phones.
– HealthyChildren.org/MediaUsePlan: Tool for creating a family media plan and calculating media time.
– TeenSafe: App for monitoring children and teen phone use.
–Qustodio: App for managing and setting limits on screen time.