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Too much time on social media is dangerous to teen mental health — but how much is too much?

The impact of excessive social media screen time on young people’s mental health has become a hot-button headline issue.

 

Platforms like Instagram and TikTok have reportedly promoted unrealistic images of teenage girls, leading to negative perceptions of body image. Such exposure to videos and photos on social media have been linked to eating disorders among teen and adolescent girls.

 

Another study found that as many as 95% of 13 to 17-year-olds report using social media, with more than a third saying they use it “almost constantly.”  That same study also found that nearly 40% of children between the ages of eight and 12 use social media, leading US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy to issue a public health warning that excessive social media use is contributing to a “national youth mental health crisis.”

 

“Excessive screen time, especially before bedtime, can interfere with sleep quality and duration, further affecting mental health, increasing anxiety and depression,” said Brandon Jones, psychotherapist, executive director of the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health.

On his “It’s Not Your Fault” podcast on the ShelettaMakesMeLaugh.com podcasting platform, Jones discussed the problem, and how parents can respond.

 

The dangers are not just limited to immediate effects, warned Jones, but can also have long-term implications on overall well-being and development, particularly with young users.

Over time, excessive screen time can diminish their social skills and relationships.

 

“Isolation is another area of concern,” said Jones. “Despite being more ‘connected’ than ever, excessive screen time can lead to social isolation, with individuals preferring online interactions over real-world connections.”

 

Mental health red flags

 

Recognizing some of the signs that social media may be negatively affecting a child's mental health and social skills is crucial for timely intervention and support. Families should be aware of the following changes in their child’s behavior, said Jones:

 

Mood changes, increased irritability, sadness, or anger that correlate with social media use.

Shying away or avoiding interactions with family and friends, preferring to spend time online.

Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or a significant increase in sleep time can be linked to excessive screen time.

 

Increased anxiety, hopelessness, or mentions of feeling down could be tied to social media use.

Noticeable discomfort or lack of skill in face-to-face interactions, like avoiding eye contact or difficulty carrying on conversations.

 

A preference for interacting with peers through social media rather than in person.

Trouble understanding non-verbal cues, such as body language or tone of voice.

Being a victim or perpetrator of bullying on social media can significantly affect a child’s mental health and social skills.

 

A noticeable decline in grades or school performance may be linked to excessive social media use.

 

Difficulty concentrating or being unable to focus on tasks without checking social media.

 

Frequent complaints about headaches or eye strain can be a symptom of too much screen time.

 

Overeating or undereating can be linked to emotional distress caused by social media.

 

Despite concerns, social media isn’t all bad.

 

“It can offer supportive communities and a sense of belonging,” said Jones, “especially for those who feel marginalized in their offline world.

 

Here are some simple rules to help families navigate the social media space:

 

Dialogue: Maintain an open line of communication. Discuss the potential risks and benefits of social media and encourage critical thinking about online interactions.

 

Explain the digital footprint: Teach teens about the long-term implications of their digital footprints, emphasizing the importance of privacy and the potential consequences of their online behavior.

 

Online collaboration: Whenever possible, engage in social media activities together. This approach fosters understanding and opens up conversations about appropriate online behavior.

 

Parental control: Some level of monitoring is necessary for younger teens, but it’s essential to shift towards trust and self-regulation as they grow older. Parental controls and apps can be useful tools but should be used transparently, so teens understand their purpose is for safety, not invasion of privacy.

 

Be the example: Model the behavior you want to see. Show them how to balance screen time with other activities and how to engage in positive online interactions.

 

 

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