The risks associated with social media are regularly reported in the media, and you may have experienced some of them already yourself or with your kids. A new study (Primack et al., 2018) adds important research to the discussion, finding that negative experiences on social media are significantly correlated with increased depressive feelings (a greater effect than positive experiences have in the inverse direction).
Among over 1,000 students between the ages of 18 and 30, the study found that each 10 percent increase in negative experiences was correlated with a 20 percent increase in the likelihood of depressive symptoms. In lay terms, study participants reported that negative experiences on social media led to more depressive symptoms. Considering such research, how can parents use this information to help their teenage children?
Some parents manage the dangers of social media by either requiring that the children include them in their network or by disallowing social media use altogether. What I have found in my clinical work is that telling a child “no” often has the opposite effect: it causes secretive behavior and a mix of resentful or angry feelings. Rather than over controlling kids, the key is to teach kids the best possible lessons so that they don’t feel compelled to engage in unhealthy or self-destructive behaviors. (If social media use increases negative feelings, that behavior is ultimately self-destructive.)
The study in question focuses on adults, but parents addressing social media use with kids — especially teens — can prevent problems later. Teenagers, of course, are a mercurial bunch, caught in a life stage fraught with hormones, identity struggles, and intense social pressures. Many (or most?) teens won’t want to talk at length with their parents about some of their negative feelings, so parents must figure out a way to connect with them about this issue in a way that doesn’t feel too intrusive or emotionally threatening.
The most direct way to use the information from the study would be to ask your child directly whether they ever feel bad or worse after spending time on social media. You could ask direct questions like these: “Do you ever feel bad or depressed when you see or read certain things on social media? If so, does it make sense to keep doing it? Have you been able to figure out which type of things make you feel worse when you see them on social media?” If you have a child who will talk openly in response to such direct questions, these questions are a good start.
If you are like many parents who feel confused about how to address emotional issues with their teenagers, another approach can be very helpful. Instead of asking them a shotgun-series of questions about their own feelings (read: being a prying, claustrophobic parent), share your experiences. Draw on your emotional experiences with social media and share any negative experiences you have had. For example, your admission might be something like this: “Sometimes I’ve gone on social media, felt fine, and then seen all these updates about all the exciting experiences everyone else is having. Everyone looks so happy and it feels like everyone has so many more friends than me. I don’t like that feeling, so sometimes I take a break from social media or I remind myself that what I see online isn’t the same thing as what happens behind closed doors. Appearances can be so deceiving.” Share a healthy approach like this: “People who are truly happy usually don’t feel the need to prove it to everyone else, so what does it say about a person if they feel a constant need to let everyone else know how great their life is?” Finally, you can insert a sound bite in the rare case they are still listening: “Real life doesn’t take place online.”
The most important lesson is to teach your kids the basics about relationships and self-esteem: no one feels great all the time, and how things look on the surface is rarely what things are like in reality. By trying to engage your child and guide their emotional development, you are being a conscious parent and showing them that you care not just about their grades or future employability; you actually care about how they feel.