The Dangers of Social Media
If you’ve kept up with recent news, you may have seen that the US Surgeon General just released an advisory statement on the dangers of social media and mental health. As a counselor that works primarily with adolescents, I hear a lot about social media. Nearly 60% of the entire world’s population and 74% of Americans use social media (Chaffey). The Surgeon General’s report states that 95% of teenagers ages 13-17 use social media. Parents are always asking me what should be done about their teen’s social media usage - how dangerous is it really? Based on recent research, as well as my own observations in the counseling room, I have a few considerations for parents who are struggling with these questions.
1. How much time is your teen (and yourself) spending on social media? Aside from the content itself, how much of your day are you spending on the couch or in bed, mindlessly scrolling? First check your own screen time and make proper adjustments - it is unfair for you to expect your teen to have less time on screens if you won’t make the sacrifice yourself. Second, check your kid’s screen time. Recognize that much of that time your teen is not moving their bodies and just staring at a screen. Additionally, studies have shown that simply cutting down your time on social media seems to have a direct correlation to decreased symptoms of depression, anxiety, and loneliness (Walton).
2. Consider who has access to your child on social media. Unless their profiles are seriously locked down and monitored, anybody has access to your child. One experiment by Bark shows the immediate danger of this - they posed an adult as a 15 year old girl and within 1 hour, 7 adult men contacted her. By the end of 9 days, the number escalated to 92. They then launched another experiment using the profile of an adult posing as an 11 year old girl. Within seconds, they were contacted by adult men with sexually explicit profile pictures. I wish I could tell you this doesn’t happen that often, yet this is something we see consistently. Your children are not safe online. In fact, “nearly 6-in-10 adolescent girls say they’ve been contacted by a stranger on certain social media platforms in ways that make them feel uncomfortable” (Surgeon General’s Advisory).
3. Notice how your child seems to feel after being online. One example from the Advisory statement indicates that “when asked about the impact of social media on their body image, nearly half (46%) of adolescents aged 13–17 said social media makes them feel worse.” This is due to many factors, of course. One factor is the impact of social comparison on our mood - one study indicated that females have felt worse about themselves after interacting with a post of someone they perceived to be more attractive than them (Walton). Social media presents the best of everyone’s life - the coolest vacations, the prettiest faces, the most perfect relationships. Many kids and teens (and adults) are left wondering - “Why can’t I be that pretty? That cool? That successful?” Another factor is that social media is the perfect breeding ground for cyberbullying, rumor spreading, and drama. Someone blocking you on Instagram, sharing your photos without your consent on snapchat, or posting comments or photos with the intention to hurt someone’s feelings is extremely commonplace on these apps. While this may not seem like a big deal, to a teenager whose social life exists in large part on social media platforms, these actions can be very destructive. 59% of US teens have reported some form of cyberbullying - including name calling, spreading false rumors, receiving physical threats, and unsolicited receipt and spreading of sexually explicit images (Anderson).
So the clear answer is yes - social media has the potential to be very dangerous for your child and teen. So what can be done? Here are some of the things I recommend to the families I work with:
1. Educate yourself and your child on up to date research and current apps. Check out Childhood 2.0 on Youtube and The Social Dilemma on Netflix to gain more understanding on social media. Read the full Surgeon General’s Advisory Statement (link below). I also recommend joining the Facebook group “parenting in a tech world” - it’s an online community of parents and professionals working together to navigate how to parent in this age of social media. Finally, have frequent conversations with your child about how to protect themselves online.
2. Install some form of monitoring software (like Bark) on your child’s device, especially if they are a younger teenager/child. Yes, I understand this will cause World War 3 in your household, but this type of program can monitor for predators, cyberbullying, and self-harm/suicidal ideation and has the potential to inform you of a problem before it’s too late.
3. Limit screen time as much as possible for your household (including the adults), and wait as long as is reasonable to give your child access to social media. The older they are, the more developed their brain will be, which means the better they will handle the social pressures, addictive algorithms, and other potential dangers of social media. Develop a consistent social media family plan that the entire family adheres to based on what is best for your child's maturity and emotional needs.
In closing, I know social media has its benefits, and I also understand why it is so important to teenagers today. However, I believe the research is clear - especially for young minds, it has the potential to do more harm than good. A healthy balance and a proper education of the realities of social media are key to developing emotionally and physically healthy adult brains and bodies. Check out these resources for more information!
Mikayla Bugh, LPC
US Surgeon General’s Advisory (PDF):
Childhood 2.0 Documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=He3IJJhFy-I
BARK Experiment: https://www.google.com/search?q=BARK+instagram+experiment&rlz=1C1UEAD_enUS939US939&sxsrf=APwXEdeSokhpfD7374HK0wTlKcIRFsakVw%3A1680550898080&ei=8isrZOzABMS6qtsPwcaw-AQ&ved=0ahUKEwjsgbr6u47-AhVEnWoFHUEjDE8Q4dUDCBA&uact=5&oq=BARK+instagram+experiment&gs_lcp=Cgxnd3Mtd2l6LXNlcnAQAzIFCCEQoAEyBQghEKABOgsIABCKBRCGAxCwAzoECCMQJ0oECEEYAVCFBlixDWClDmgBcAB4AIABXIgBwASSAQE4mAEAoAEByAEDwAEB&sclient=gws-wiz-serp#fpstate=ive&vld=cid:933150e3,vid:dbg4hNHsc_8
Other studies and articles:
Chaffey, D. (2023, May 11). Global Social Media Statistics Research Summary 2022 [June 2022]. Smart Insights. https://www.smartinsights.com/social-media-marketing/social-media-strategy/new-global-social-media-research/
Impact of social media on Youth Mental Health. University of Nevada, Reno. (2019, December 30). https://onlinedegrees.unr.edu/online-master-of-public-health/impact-of-social-media-on-youth-mental-health/
The social dilemma: Social media and your mental health. Here’s How Social Media Affects Your Mental Health | McLean Hospital. (2023, January 18). https://www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/it-or-not-social-medias-affecting-your-mental-health
Walton, A. G. (2022, October 12). New studies show just how bad social media is for mental health. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2018/11/16/new-research-shows-just-how-bad-social-media-can-be-for-mental-health/?sh=7146287f7af4