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Is social media an obstacle to my child’s mental health?

Our expert panel explores the links between social media and mental health. Learn what you can do to help them manage their digital lives and reduce harmful risks.

Dr. Linda Papadopoulos

Psychologist, Author, Broadcaster and Internet Matters Ambassador
Expert Website

What are the steps that parents should take if they feel that their child is suffering from mental health issue because of stress and social media use?

A few years ago, when I began researching the effects of social media on young people much of the worry was around access to things like pornography and the possibility of children being approached by strangers online. While these are still important issues to address, I think that increasingly it’s the more hidden aspects of the online world that have the potential to affect our children’s mental health.

Young people live in a world today that is constantly connected and while this comes with benefits, it also comes with a feeling that you’re constantly visible, and by extension judged. This increased awareness of your visibility and access to other people’s opinions about; how they look, behave, act, what they post, how often they post, what they like, how they comment on others profiles – is leaving many children feeling stressed and unable to turn off the amplified sense of self-awareness that social media inevitably leaves you with.

If you suspect that your children are feeling the pressure to liven up their online identities, there are a few things that you can do:

Ways to support your child

1. Be informed: Educate yourself about the social media sites your child is using so you can really understand what they are feeling. They are more likely to take your advice onboard if you’re speaking their language.
2. Encourage critical thinking: Be aware of how you approach a discussion with your child. Avoid being judgmental or preaching, instead invite your kids to talk about their feelings and encourage them to think critically about why they do what they do online, the pressure they feel and about how much control they actually have.

3. Talk generally: Don’t be afraid to talk about social media as a phenomenon that effects not just them but everyone. This may make it easier for them to open up and think critically. For example you might discuss whether social media can distort expectations of beauty or popularity or how much they believe the pictures or ideas that their friends or indeed they post are a realistic portrayal of life and happiness.

4. Acknowledge that sometimes things can feel overwhelming: Exams, family, after school commitments, friends it’s a lot to juggle – make a point of acknowledging this. Normalising it will help contain feelings of anxiety. Also look at how their social media commitments add to their to do list. Doing this will make it easier for them talk about boundaries when it comes to how much time they spend engaging on social media.

5. Help them develop realistic expectations and better time management skills: Tell them that you understand how important social media is to them and that you respect that but also explain that feelings stressed is something that you can empathise and help with. Work together to set up a homework and other commitments schedule. Ensure you incorporate down times from all the ‘have to’s’ including social media. Talk about activities that can help de-stress like physical activity and creativity and the importance of face to face time with family friends. Help them understand that the idea that the 2 things (connecting on line and connecting face to face) don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Catherine Knibbs

Child Trauma Psychotherapist (Cybertrauma)
Expert Website

What is the biggest impact that social media can have on mental health? I.e. body image, sleep, FOMO? What should parents watch out for?

Social media can be a double-edged sword. Where it provides many positive benefits of relational interactions between young people it can also highlight where difficulties in those relationships exist. Akin to the playground pressures to fit in, conform and the drive to belong, it can appear with a persistent feel when in the digital space. Each impact is individual and the signs that parents need to look for are as individual as each child and the pressures they face.

As parents, it is helpful to understand that these pressures can be perceived by an adolescent brain as more intense to them and are not silly or over exaggerated. An open, non-judgemental approach and gentle curiosity can help with this. Young people who struggle with interpersonal relationships may need a more gentle and accepting framework in order for them to form or create an identity that helps them move through this time and be resilient to these pressures. Ask a young person what they feel the digital world is to blame for (many young people have an opinion on this) and those answers will reveal how they perceive the pressures they and others are possibly under.

Laura Higgins

Director of Community Safety and Digital Civility, Roblox
Expert Website

Social media is increasingly seen as a harmful factor in children mental health, is there a way that it can be used to have a positive impact on young people’s mental health?

Support can be found in the strangest places, we call it “finding your tribe”. In the same way that in the physical world you are attracted to people based on looks, attitude, values and similar interests, the same applies online. If a young person is experiencing a low period, suffering from anxiety or worse, they will seek out other internet users with similar issues, to ask for their support, advice and coping strategies.

Often, they choose anonymous platforms where they can express themselves without embarrassment or feeling judged, and the response in these communities is overwhelmingly supporting and positive. Many people who are managing their mental health issues return to these communities to offer peer support, to “give something back”. And if there is appropriate moderation in place, this is a lovely thing.

Some young people may be questioning their sexuality but don’t feel able to talk about it, others may be embarrassed about their anxiety issues, or body image worries. Having a safe, supportive network around you is incredibly important in those moments, and that doesn’t just happen “in the real world”.

There are also great examples of charities using technology to engage with young people positively. Kooth is one example, an online counselling and emotional well-being platform for children and young people, offering counsellors and peer to peer moderated advice. Other examples are small charities and counsellors who monitor content on social media sites and reach out to people if they appear in distress, offering their services when they are most needed – “I can see you are having a bad time, you can call us free on xxx”.

It is better for a young person to ask for support wherever that may come from, than to suffer in silence.

We know that the demands of social media can take their toll on some young people – accelerating pressures found in the offline world or creating unreasonable expectations around social position and body image. Some young people can even find themselves dependent on the feelings of validation they get from likes and shares. But social media has both good and bad elements and it may not be as easy as you think for your child to simply turn it off – especially when many young people also use it as a source of entertainment, community and support.

As a parent, it’s important to remember that young people face challenges in all elements of their life and social media may just be one part of a complex picture. If your child seems to be using social media a lot and is becoming stressed, try to help them regain balance between their on and offline lives. The Mix has an article with some strategies for taking a break from social media. Encourage your children to reflect on