Is Social Media Harming Your Teenage or Young Adult Children?
Yes, of course it is!
Well…on the other hand, no, not really.
What’s the real answer? To some extent, the answer is that we’re still learning.
Researchers continue to learn a lot about the short- and long-term impact of children, teens, and adults being frequently engaged in social media on personal devices. Some challenges, like unhappiness, feelings of isolation, and depression and anxiety have been linked to frequent social media usage. Other concerns include sleep problems, cyber bullying, and addiction – see here and here. Similarly, some studies show that taking a break from social media can help individuals experience an increase in life satisfaction and positive emotions.
What we continually find as we work closely with many youth and young adults and their families is that usage of social media and personal devices can be healthy or unhealthy. It depends on how it is used.
Experience and Choice
Consider an analogy. When your teen comes of age and earns the privilege of driving a car, they can use that privilege in different ways. They can choose to follow laws and guidance of experienced drivers. This usually leads to more careful driving in an effort to avoid potential dangers. Or your teen can choose to ignore laws and guidance and likely experience more problems. Both types of drivers are given significant power to do potentially great things. Both types of drivers are also exposed to potential risks. They can’t control what’s going on around them nor can they anticipate every threat. But the careful and guided driver is much more likely to have positive experiences, gain confidence, and establish a pattern of safe choices. This will very likely lead to positive experiences.
Navigating Today’s Connected World
As with learning to drive a car, today’s teens and young adults live in an internet world and must learn how to drive through it as effectively and safely as possible. They must be given the opportunity to experience “the road” and make choices – with guidance, of course. Social media and the internet world are not inherently bad or destructive, nor are they inherently positive and uplifting. For each of us, they are what we make them to be. Social media can be a powerful tool like a car can be.
Tools of Empowerment
Parents, you have a great opportunity to provide guidance in social media usage. Consider the points and tools below that will help you empower your teen to use social media in a way that is likely to produce healthy outcomes.
It’s Not About Control
Your teen can’t learn to “drive” if you don’t put them in the driver’s seat. Of course they need help, but doing it for them or dictating every detail usually leads them to feel powerless and resentful. As they learn to use social media, be with them and provide suggestions. For example, tell them that you want them to have a good experience so you want to help them with social media profile settings. Connect with them on the platforms they are using. Periodically review with them how things are going. Resist telling them exactly what to do. Ask questions like “How can I help you?” and “Do you want to hear what I have learned?”
Keep the Destination in Mind
When using social media, we all need to have a purpose and a time frame and then move on to other activities. If the goal is to check-in with friends, enjoy that opportunity but avoid directionless, limitless browsing or “zoning out.” Be purposeful and then be done. It feels good to take charge of your experience and “drive” with confidence rather than to be wandering on random paths. Recognize when you are using social media just because you have nothing else to do. Challenge yourself to be creative and engage in something else.
Have Guard Rails in Place
Like driving a car, safety measures and defensive “driving” are critical. Typical safety measures like content filtering and accountability software are helpful, but they’re not perfect. Add to those things mutually-agreed-upon standards for social media usage that empower your teen. For example, decide which platform(s) you agree are appropriate. Discuss appropriate language and content to be used (e.g., friendly, uplifting, informative, educational, etc.). Talk about limiting personal information like where you live and where you go to school. Establish an agreement to avoid meeting with people whom you don’t know in real-life. Above all, help your teen to know that they are their most effective filter and that they can design a healthy experience for themselves.
Enjoy the Ride
Yes, there will be obstacles and setbacks on the road, but navigating through effective social media usage together, like many other life experiences, can be a joy. Make adjustments as you learn together. This can be a great way for teens and parents to connect with each other.
-Torrey Harmon, Therapist and Clinical Director at Utah Family Therapy. 801-901-0279.