Social media is an inescapable part of the lives of our young people today. A recent report found that 94.8% of 15-year-olds in the UK used social media before or after school (OECD, 2015). With more and more platforms developing it can be worrying as a parent to think of the impact social media is having on your child’s mental health. Yet, with the right kind of education and boundaries in place, young people can thrive as they engage with social media. Let’s think through the positives of social media, the risk associated with it before looking at what you may be able to do to help.
What is the positive impact of social media?
Some use of social media can be extremely positive for young people. It can be a place of deep connection for them where they are able to build relationships with friends and family across the world. For those who struggle with isolation and loneliness, this can be incredibly important.
Social media can also help develop communication and social skills alongside providing a platform for young people to share their opinions, ideas and experiences.
For young people who are creative it can be a place for them to express themselves creatively whether that’s through sharing their projects, videos, blogs or podcasts.
It can also be an amazing way to find community. Many young people struggle to find others who share experiences, interests, culture or identity with them but through social media, they are able to find a place to belong. This can then help them to develop their own individual identity. It’s also a great way to find out what’s going on in their local community and how they can get involved in causes they are passionate about.
When used with wisdom and healthy boundaries, social media can have a positive impact on a young person. However, it is not without risk or the potential for harm.
What are the risks with social media?
As a parent, one thing you may be concerned about is the amount of time spent on social media. It may feel like all your child does is spend time on their phone. You may notice this impacts the time they spend with family or friends or their ability to get their homework done. An excessive amount of time spent on social media can also limit the physical exercise a young person is able to do.
Another area of potential harm is what your child shares on social media. Research has found that we are more likely to share personal information online than we are offline. It has also been found that behaviour and language can become more intense online than it would in person.
Cyberbullying is a growing concern for many as more and more young people are experiencing this form of abuse. This can show itself as hurtful messages, name-calling, photos being posted without permission or content being shared with the aim to demean or humiliate.
Excessive social media use can also have an impact on a young person’s body image. All platforms give users control of how they want to portray themselves, allowing them to put out the best version of themselves. With the rise of filters and editing, young people are bombarded with idealised, photoshopped images of beauty which can, in turn, affect their self-esteem and view of themselves.
Whilst social media can be a helpful tool for communication and sharing information, it can also be a place to access harmful information. Profiles can be made specifically dedicated to promoting self-harm, suicide or portraying unhealthy behaviours as lifestyle choices. Without helpful guidance, many young people can be heavily influenced by these kinds of ideas.
While social media may not be the cause of a young person’s poor mental health, these risks can contribute to it and so it is important to think through how best to help and protect your child as they engage with it.
How can I help?
Firstly by reading articles like this you are already trying to learn and grow in your understanding of social media which is really important. Try to find out about the sites they are using to better understand what it is that enjoy about them but also what the dangers might be.
Educate your child
Teaching young people to understand what they are using is an essential part of helping them to develop resilience and wisdom when it comes to social media. Help them to use critical thinking as they read or see images online, to challenge what they see when it seems altered or fake. Encourage them to reflect on any feelings evoked as they engage with social media alongside thinking through what they share and why they are sharing it.
Something that is really useful to teach children early on is the importance of healthy boundaries in their life. This is especially true with social media. Structures and habits formed at an early age inform your child for the rest of their lives. Help them to think through how social media fits in with the rest of their life and responsibilities. Depending on the age of your child you may want to restrict how much time they have on social media in a day or on their phone in general. This might be through having specific device-free times of the day or setting up apps on your child’s device which turn off at an allocated time. As your child gets older these boundaries will change and it will be more important to give them the freedom to make decisions for themselves, including the freedom to make mistakes. Too much restriction can impact your child’s ability to assess and identify risk for themselves the older they get.
Set a good example
When trying to support your child with something, it is always helpful to reflect on your own experience too. It might be worth taking some time to think about how you use social media and what example you set for your child. What patterns and habits do you have when it comes to your phone or devices? What kind of information do you share?
Watch out for signs
It may be impacting your child’s mental health - if you notice your child is withdrawing more and more, losing interest in their favourite activities or their mood and behaviour has begun to change it may be that they would benefit from some support with their mental health.
Social Media, when used well, can be an incredible tool for your young person to grow and thrive. As you take the time to open up a conversation with them and encourage healthy boundaries they will feel better equipped to use it and protect their mental health in the process.
If your child is struggling with life online, and you're wondering if counselling could be the answer for your child, please get in touch with us. We'd be happy to talk it through.