As a parent of a middle schooler and high school student, I’m acutely aware of that digital device that seems to almost be surgically attached to my child’s hands. Smart phone adoption is up to 95 percent of teenagers, and nearly half (45%) of teens say they’re online on a near-constant basis, according to Pew Research Center’s 2018 study of U.S. teenagers. The resulting screen time and social media use can have an impact on teens’ physical and emotional health.
It’s not just from personal comparisons or cyberbullying. Heavy social media use and screen time is hurting our teens by contributing to a lack of sleep and physical activity.
Is Sleep Hurt By Smart Phone Technology?
Smartphone use by teens is a battle I face as a parent, as well. We’ve had the conversation at home on multiple occasions on how the blue light emitted from smart phones interrupts sleep, not to mention the pinging of the latest message on SnapChat. And as the school year begins, it’s a perfect time to revisit with our teens just how much time is spent attached to that smartphone.
Experts advise avoiding screens or watching television for at least one hour before you sleep. And a European study found that teens who were on screens (exposed to blue light) more than four hours a day took 30 minutes longer each night to fall asleep and showed more signs of tiredness during waking hours. But it may go well beyond just needing a blue-light filter. The National Sleep Foundation shows that our retinas sense light and dark, signaling to our brain times of awakeness and sleep. Considering how much time is spent on Chromebooks and other computer technology during the school day and for homework that light exposure time ramps up quickly. Get more tips on helping your teen slow down smartphone use and get some sleep.
What are the Mental Health Effects of Smartphone Use?
As social media use continues to rise, researchers are investigating the mental health effects of social media on its users. This week, the international medical journal The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health reported that the way social media use impacts teens may even depend on their gender. In the study of teens ages 13 to 16 years old, heavy social media use predicted later poor mental health and physical well-being in both girls and boys. Girls seemed to be impacted more from exposure to cyberbullying, and disruption of sleep and exercise than boys, however,
Happiness and Smartphone Use
Interestingly, many teens believe social media doesn’t have a negative effect on people, citing the opportunities for positive connections and support, and for meeting others with the same interests. We saw this in our family, as my teen was recovering from surgery; staying connected to friends online boosted her emotionally during her recovery process.
However, an increasing body of research shows a relationship between the amount of smartphone use and happiness. Teens with higher levels of screen time use were less happy than those who spent more time doing "non-screen" activities, such as sports, face-to-face time with others, and reading magazines.
Social Media and Depression Risk
Social media also can contribute to depression by increasing feelings of isolation and decreasing face-to-face interactions. It doesn’t even need to be from cyberbullying. Think of it in a teen’s mind: She sees friends posting selfies with a group, or naming another person as their bestie in a quiz. Without those nonverbal cues stemming from a conversation or tone in a voice, your teen is missing context and can easily misunderstand a situation. In fact, ChildMind.org reports that, due to today's constant online connections, adolescents are missing out on the critical development of social skills because they don't have enough practice conducting face-to-face interactions. A study by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine says depression from social media could develop from:
- Seeing your peers posting idealized representations of themselves, fostering feelings of jealousy and low self-confidence
- Engaging in meaningless social media activities that produce feelings of wasted time and guilt
- An emerging internet addiction
- Cyber-bullying or other negative interactions
According to an article in The Nation's Health, a publication by the American Public Health Association, young people, particularly young women and teen girls who frequently use social media, are at highest risk for depression. Overall, half of teenage girls consider themselves near-constant online users, compared with 41 percent of teen boys, a possible contributor to this statistic.
It's important to know the signs of depression, which can include:
- Withdrawing from social interactions (canceling engagements, not answering calls, etc.)
- Having trouble focusing on tasks
- A change in sleeping or eating habits
- Irritability or sudden mood changes
- Sudden changes in weight
- Significant decrease in motivation - finding it hard to do daily life tasks and feeling easily overwhelmed
If you're experiencing symptoms of depression, you are not alone. Ask your primary care physician for a referral, or ask a trusted friend or family member if he or she has experience with helpful providers. According to NAMI, successfully treating depression may require therapy, medication, real-life social support (not including social media), involvement in hobbies or social activities, exercise and a healthier diet.
Reaching out for help is all it takes to start living a happier, more authentic life, with or without social media.
Curbing the Impact of Social Media Use in Your Teen
If you think social media usage or excessive use of technology could be having negative effects on your teen or tween, consider these tips:
- Know where your child is online. While you may know your child is on YouTube, Instagram or SnapChat, there are always new apps like Tik Toc in development that they may be checking out. "Friend" or follow your children on their social accounts and monitor their interactions.
- Create a family media plan.
- Make sure your tween or teen knows how much time they are spending online. Many apps will allow you to track time spent using them. Check in on them – my teen was shocked to find during the laziest days of summer she was watching 2 hours of video a day on Instagram!
- Establish technology-free zones and hours in your home. Keep devices in public parts of your home. Turn off Wi-Fi if necessary.
- Take time to put down your own phone and give your child your full attention.
- Have conversations with your teen about what they’re experiencing in social media. A perceived slight from a friend can turn into unwarranted drama that could have easily been avoided by talking things out. Likewise, establishing a comfort zone where your child can feel safe coming to you about cyberbullying, online threats or friends’ behaviors or comments online can be life-changing.
- Encourage your teen or tween to participate in social activities and hobbies in person.
- Learn many of the warning signs of trouble: skipping activities, meals and homework for social media; weight loss or gain; a drop in grades.
Want more tips? We discussed use of social media and what their parents should know with WGN Radio in Chicago.
By Robbie Schneider
Social Media Manager