Tips to Help Protect Your Child’s Mental Health From Harmful Social Media Use

Dr. Kimberly Nordstrom


By: Dr. Kimberly Nordstrom, Psychiatrist and Chief Medical Officer, UnitedHealthcare Community & State, Colorado

Social media can be a great tool to help build connections, stay informed and engage with others. However, it can become all-consuming and potentially damaging to adolescent brain development, which is a cause for concern.

A recent advisory issued by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy calls attention to the potential harmful effects social media has on children’s mental health. According to the report, 95% of teens ages 13-17 say they use social media, with more than a third saying they use it “almost constantly.” In addition, 40% of children ages 8-12 use social media, even though most platforms require users to be at least 13 to participate.

According to a study in the report, teens who spend more than three hours a day on social media face twice the risk of experiencing mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Other potential issues referenced in the report include:

  • Body dissatisfaction, or disordered eating behaviors
  • Social comparison
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Poor sleep

The information in this report corroborates with the what UnitedHealthcare providers are often seeing: an increased rate of harmful comparison, limited in-person interaction, feelings of loneliness and an uptick in anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Dr. Donald Tavakoli, national medical director for behavioral health at UnitedHealthcare, says the amount of time children spend online affects their overall development.

The Surgeon General’s advisory comes as youth mental health remains in a state of crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 5 children have a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder and only about 20% of those children receive care from a mental health provider.

These findings may be alarming for parents and tackling the issues surrounding social media use may feel overwhelming as well. These tips may help you and your child become more informed about social media use and, in turn, reduce potential harm:


Understand and monitor social media

Having a bit of background on the latest social media apps can help parents create better limits and boundaries for their kids. As children’s brains go through dramatic developmental changes, they could develop sensitivities associated with a desire for attention and may have undeveloped self-control, especially during early adolescence. Social channels that promote “likes” or excessive scrolling may pose issues for developing brains. Limit chat functions, especially with strangers, and restrict inappropriate content.


Create a family social media plan

Set guidelines and boundaries when it comes to your family’s social media use. This can be agreed-upon expectations of what social media use looks like to your family, including screen time limits, online safety and protecting personal privacy. The Academy of Pediatrics has a template that can guide you through the process.


Communication is key

Initiate open and honest conversations, without judgement, with your child about their activity on social media on a regular basis. Ask them about what they see on social media and pose hypotheticals, asking how they would respond in different scenarios. Ensure they know the signs of cyberbullying, and how permanent an online post can be.


Create tech-free zones

It can be helpful to restrict electronic use at least one hour before bedtime and through the night. Studies show two or more hours of screentime in the evening can greatly disrupt the melatonin surge needed to fall asleep. Keep mealtimes free from technology and encourage in-person conversations. Encourage children to foster in-person friendships and build social skills.


Model healthy social media behavior

Children often learn by watching your behaviors and habits, so make sure you’re limiting the time you spend on social media and be responsible with what you choose to post. When you are on your device, tell your children what you’re doing.

While the Surgeon General’s advisory focuses on the potential negative impacts of social media use on children and teens, it also acknowledges social media can provide some benefits. It can be helpful in creating community connection over shared interests, abilities and identities or providing space for self-expression. Encouraging children to form healthy relationships with technology is critical.

Adults cannot afford to wait to understand the full impact of social media because adolescents’ brains are still developing. It’s crucial that parents take an active role in helping their children safely navigate social media.

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