Reality Check: Kids and Social Media

We know kids today spend a lot more of their time interacting through social media than in the past. Research tells us that all this screen time can not only skew their reality but also prompt symptoms of anxiety and depression. Dr. Elena Metcalf, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Amberwing, is seeing the effects first-hand.

“I’m seeing kids as young as two who are essentially addicted to their devices,” she said. “They get used to having constant stimulation and don’t develop other interests or the ability to regulate their emotions or their attention. It makes everything else seem boring or frustrating by comparison, which can lead to behavior problems and a lack of motivation or ‘grit’ for activities that take longer to master.” TV may be as much to blame as other digital technology.

While online content and social media interactions provide no context—anyone anywhere can post photos or have hundreds of likes—TV offers teens an idealized
life. Kids see an unnatural world that’s impossible to emulate. Perfect beauty, perfect parents, perfect friends and lots of drama. That’s a lot to deal with.

“Social media amplifies whatever may be going on in a teenager’s life. Everything seems more urgent and more permanent when it’s posted digitally, which corresponds with the way the teenage brain is wired for more black and white thinking. We see levels of emotional intensity (whether irritability or sadness) decrease with even a few hours away from their phones,” said Metcalf. But that’s not to say some screen time can’t be good.

Studies show that certain types of online connections with small groups of people can be beneficial for teens. While real-life friendships and interactions are important, those who have social anxiety or trouble with social skills and those who don’t have easy access to socializing might benefit from social media. Marginalized teens—LGBTQ communities for example—might find real benefit to connecting online.

That’s good news, because on average, teens spend about seven hours per day with social media. Tweens clock in around five hours per day. “In addition,” said Dr. Melcalf, “Electronics command the attention of parents, who are less available to interact with their children.”

While it does seem that the negatives of screen time outweigh the benefits, there is a middle path. The key to helping teens learn to balance screen time with real life friendships is to keep lines of honest and supportive communication open and model the behavior you hope for. Disconnect on weekends and show your teen that there is a whole world out there that doesn’t require a handheld screen. You both might miss your phone a lot less than
you think.

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