A whopping 22 million teens in the U.S. log on to the photo sharing app Instagram each day. If you follow the news, you’re likely aware that internal research by Facebook (Instagram’s parent company) found that Instagram is associated with damaging effects on the mental health of teen users, too often exacerbating depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and even suicidal thoughts. Presumably, a daily diet of highly filtered and curated images depicting perfection and fun by influencers, celebrities, and others leaves some teen girls with a negative self-image.
This is not to say that using social media has no upside. For example, connecting with friends and family has been a lifeline for isolated kids during the pandemic. But it is important to note that for many the risks associated with social media may outweigh the benefits.
Many teens who struggle with mental health issues report Instagram makes their problems worse.
Developmentally, tweens and teens already feel a great deal of pressure to conform, fit in, be attractive, etc.—feelings they look to social media to validate. However, Instagram and other apps often do the opposite: By providing endless opportunities to compare themselves to the attractiveness, wealth, and success of others, they leave young users feeling inadequate and inferior.
Self-esteem in adolescents tends to be fragile across the board. But kids with LD and ADHD who already struggle with these issues may be even more vulnerable to negative comparison, and can easily fall victim to make up for perceived deficits by achieving “perfection” like the celebrity role-models they’re consuming on social media. In young girls that can lead to eating disorders and thoughts of suicide.
And because kids with learning differences already often feel different from their peers, negative comparison can also foster depression and anxiety, as well as lead to increased risky behaviors as a way to fit in.
In order to protect tweens and teens from the harms associated with social media, you’ll need to establish firm boundaries, coupled with lots of two-way communication. Following is a menu of options:
- If your kids are under 14, do not allow them to download apps such as Instagram.
- Clever kids find ways around this, so consider using parental control apps to block access.
- If your child feels lack of access is creating a social disadvantage, which kids with learning differences often already experience, then download the app on your phone and view together. This will give you some control over the amount of time spent on any one topic or particular influencer and provide opportunities to discuss what feelings arise from their viewing experiences. It also provides the chance for you to be an “influencer” by guiding them toward some of the fabulous content on Instagram (art, poetry, activism, animals, inspirational quotes, etc.), which are less apt to invite negative social comparison. You might even surprise them by encouraging them to post some of their own material.
- If your child is over 14 or already has the app, the above suggestion to spend time co-viewing applies.
- Because it is easy to open social media apps out of habit or boredom, I also recommend deleting the app from one’s phone. This does not delete the account. It can still be accessed via the browser, but that extra step slows things down, which provides the opportunity to ask, “Do I really want to be doing this right now?” This can be especially helpful with those who struggle with impulsivity.
- For new users, parents can require that they be allowed to follow their child on Instagram and/or have their log-in information. This won’t allow you to control what they view in the Search feature, but you will be able to see what celebrities, influencers and accounts they are following. It will give you insights into the type of content they are gravitating toward.
- Depending on the age of your child, you can also require or at least encourage them to use the Your Activity feature which allows the user (or parent) to set a daily reminder once a certain amount of time has elapsed. The feature also allows parents to view links their children have clicked on, but be aware that they can hide their history.
Clear and Frequent Communication
- When speaking with your child, note your concerns and ask to hear theirs. You don’t have to agree with their concerns, but if you want to maintain a connection—a critical protective factor in children’s mental health—you must be willing to listen and validate their feelings.
- Ask open-ended and leading questions: “Do you know anyone whose well-being might be impacted by social media?” Sometimes kids are more open to discussing a friend’s experiences than their own out of fear that you’ll over react or impose arbitrary restrictions.
- Another great way to kick off the conversation about how social media can negatively impact mental health is by reading news articles from respected journalism sources together or summarizing the information for them. The film The Social Dilemma also does a great job illustrating the harms that can occur and helps to raise self-awareness.
- Share your own experiences with social media and social comparison and how following certain people might have made you feel inadequate. Sharing those experiences can build trust and foster open communication.
Teens and tweens are going to be attracted to social media because it is where their friends are, and it is how they stay up to date on social and pop-culture trends. But it’s your job to ensure that the exposure remains more beneficial than harmful.
Nadja Streiter is a clinical social worker and therapist who specializes in Technology and Video Game Addiction.