Social media impacts on mental health in children

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — One of the biggest issues we, as parents, have to tackle is the mental wellness of our children during the age of social media. In order to take the steps that are best for them, we have to understand the fine line between when they need […]

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — One of the biggest issues we, as parents, have to tackle is the mental wellness of our children during the age of social media. In order to take the steps that are best for them, we have to understand the fine line between when they need social media and when they need a break.

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In November, a bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general announced an investigation into Meta. That investigation focused on whether the parent company of Instagram and Facebook ignored internal research suggesting its products negatively impact the mental health of children.

“Definitely with the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen a really high surge in just the number of people, children, adolescents, using social media sites,” said Dr. Lana Mahgoub, a licensed clinical psychologist with CHKD.

Dr. Mahgoub says, in some ways, social media has been beneficial to our children.

“Just with the amount of isolation people experienced during the pandemic to still have that sense of connection, that sense of belongingness with peers, we do know that’s actually a protective factor for mental health for children.”

However, she says social media can become an unhealthy addiction.

“That’s really because it’s also designed, in a way, because of these algorithms, to become addicting. So, I’m seeing a lot of teens even that I work with, really just spending a lot of time thinking about the number of likes that they’re going to be getting on their photos, who’s looking at stuff and content that they post. So, there’s this instant gratification component to that, and that really comes from chemicals in our brain, like dopamine, that are related to pleasure and gratification.”

For example, she says many teens spend a lot of time thinking about the number of likes they get on the content they post. It can be damaging to them if they don’t hit a certain number.

“I think sometimes the harm in that, too, is that when there isn’t that instant gratification or a kid sees ‘Oh wow, like, no one likes this picture. Only a few people like this picture that I posted.’ That can start to lead sometimes to some really faulty internalized beliefs that they have about themselves. So, questions like ‘Wow! I guess I don’t look that great.’ Or ‘I guess I’m not that important.’ So, this of course as you can imagine impacts self-esteem. It starts to lead to some of these signs of anxiety and depression that we’ve been seeing a lot of.”

Dr. Mahgoub says bullying is the most common issue on social media.

“It may even be someone they know. I think that’s the interesting thing. It’s people within your social circle that you know are all of a sudden treating you differently with these passive aggressive comments that are being passed around. It’s helping kids really navigate, like, how do we set healthy boundaries from these people that may be so called friends? How do we assert ourselves and set some limits?”

With bullying, and potential self-esteem issues, comes a struggle with mental health for many children. It’s important for parents, and caregivers, to pay attention to warning signs of a child who is struggling.

“This is tough because it can also look so subtle. Kids are really good at masking their emotions sometimes. If we’re thinking about things like self-image for example, looking out for changes in eating patterns would be one really good sign. So, if your kids are all of a sudden refusing meals, reducing their intake overall, that’s red flag. That’s a red flag for follow-up conversations that should be had with them,” added Dr. Mahgoub. “The earlier that we can catch some of those things the better, because then we can determine okay, how severe may this be? Is this something my kid may respond to a conversation well with, or is it something that maybe we need professional support with? They may also be looking for signs of whether their kids are really preoccupied with their physical appearance, or even if there’s changes in their behaviors and their mood. Maybe you have a typically upbeat and happy go lucky kid, but all of a sudden you just start to notice that they’re more down. They’re isolating more. They’re locked up in their rooms all day long. The earlier that we can catch some of those things the better.”

She says a big focus of her work with teens, and younger kids are the importance of positive affirmation.

“You are beautiful as you are. It may take a while to get that and really sink in, but you are, right? And so, these bullies, people that you sometimes don’t even know online that are commenting on your image, that are commenting on who you are, they don’t define you. They don’t know you, and they don’t determine anything about your self-worth. Advice I give to a lot of kids I work with is take a break. Take a break from these sites and from the impact this may have on you and take some time to just explore your own interests or who you are and your hobbies. Surround yourself with positive people who do uplift you and do validate you in positive ways.”

Children from a young age to teenage years all face some similar issues when it comes to social media use.

“There’s a movie called the Social Dilemma on Netflix that explains this so, so well. One of the things that ends up happening is everything is really tailored towards what you like, and so you get stuck, kind of, going through this tunnel of all the things that you like are the only things that come up. There’s a whole other side of the world, other perspectives, opinions, things that you start to lose sight of, too, and so that can, in some ways, create a very polarized kind of environment.”

The addiction to social media can also keep kids, and adults, in front of the screen for quite a while.

“It can be harmful, given that addicting component, I think for sleep regardless of how old you are. Because a lot of kids are spending so many hours up late at night, they’re losing sleep. We know sleep is so critical for mood and for attention and focus, and these screens are also emitting these blue lights that really mess with our natural circadian rhythm.”

Dr. Mahgoub says limiting screen time for certain age groups is important to mental health and development.

“Younger children are so impressionable. I mean they’re constantly developing and absorbing all the content that’s around them, whether that’s virtual or not. So, I think particularly for young kids, it’s important to really monitor and set some limits around the content and the level of exposure they have to social media.”

Remaining vigilant of what your child is doing on social media is critical.

“The reality is that kids are really smart, right? Whether we’re talking about teens or pre-teens, they’re going to find ways to navigate around things like parental controls. So, if we have access to those, and are able to use those parental controls, especially for the younger kids, that could be really beneficial, yet also knowing that there are going to be times that kids can navigate around that. So, I think having honest conversations with children about privacy settings, about safety on the internet in general. Thinking about topics like, ‘What is it that you’re posting?’ Being really conscientious that once a picture is up there, it’s going to live out there for a very long time, and that can have some detrimental impacts depending on what it is you posted. Being also conscientious about not accepting friends that you don’t actually know. You’re putting yourself at risk for online predators as well. Continuing to have really open conversations with your children about what’s going on in their lives in general helps build that connectivity to you so that they may feel more open and sharing if something is going on or if there are some changes occurring in their peer groups, they can feel comfortable coming to parents to talk about those things.”

If you’re thinking the best option is to try to permanently strip your child of their social media privileges, Dr. Mahgoub says that is not the best idea.

“There can be some disadvantage for kids who may not be connected to any kind of social media sites because it’s just the world that we live in now. That’s the reality. It can lead to some kids feeling or becoming more outcast in social circles at school if they’re not part of something and even, I mean, a lot of schools themselves have social media sites where they’re posting about school events that are coming up. As kids are getting older, too, like teen years, it’s a really important way that folks can network, begin job seeking as well, so I do think it’s a strength in some ways.”

The bottom line? Social media is a part of life now, but it doesn’t have to become our life.

“It is a balance between allowing your kids to socialize and to have that piece online, but also being careful that it’s not something that consumes them,” said Dr. Mahgoub.

Social media impacts on mental health in children

Dong Anker

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