Many parents worry about their teen’s relationship with social media. Several studies have shown a correlation between social media use and symptoms of depression. However, a new long-term study conducted by Brigham Young University (BYU) shows an alarming link between excessive social media use and increased suicide risk.
Social media and its ever-changing platforms are still relatively new, making long-term research very limited. Conducted from 2009-2019, the BYU study is the longest study to date on the correlation between social media use and suicide.
The ten-year study followed 500 teens and monitored their social media use along with their mental health. The findings showed that social media usage steadily increased from the age of 13 and was most potentially damaging to young girls.
“Something about that specific social media use pattern is particularly harmful for young girls,” according to BYU professor Sarah Coyne, the lead author of the study. “Research shows that girls, and women in general, are very relationally attuned and sensitive to interpersonal stressors, and social media is all about relationships.”
Can You Protect Your Children?
While the study highlights the risks of social media, even its authors don’t suggest eliminating it from your teen’s life. The “social” piece of social media is what is so attractive to teens and adults. In its purest form, social media offers the ability to connect and form communities, but there is clearly a darker side that many young teens may not be prepared to handle.
“I firmly believe before we give our children permission to join social platforms, we equip them with digital resilience,” she says. “This doesn’t mean it’s too late to start now [after they are already on social] – talk to them now and continue talking to them.” Scheff suggests a few simple steps to help equip your children to be digitally resilient.
- Prepare them for the ugly side of the Internet or possibly being upset by what people say. Remind them it could be inappropriate content that slips through filters. Being forewarned is being forearmed.
- Show them how to block individuals, flag and report abusive content, and when to report incidents. Emphasize the importance of telling someone (like an adult) about abusive content “in real life.”
- Show your teen how easily digital pictures can be manipulated. The realization that not everything is what it seems is a useful first step – understanding that life is not as perfect as it may seem virtually. Teens may be familiar with the digital world but less familiar with the motivations for creating “fake” images.
- Help them to think through the possible consequences of what they post online. Remind them that there is no rewind; once it’s posted it’s nearly impossible to take back. Fifteen minutes of humor is not worth a lifetime of humiliation.
- Encourage your teen to socialize in person with their friends. Communicating solely behind a screen can be isolating. Socializing in person builds more face-to-face contact in helping your child have empathy and compassion towards people.
Scheff also suggests creating clear boundaries for your kids. That can include turning phones off at a certain time every evening, creating device-free time for children and parents, and even creating a phone contract that explicitly states such boundaries so that children know what is expected of them. Then she suggests keeping the dialogue open and ongoing.
“Parents should always be monitoring and mentoring their teen’s time online period,” she says. “Although research shares that adolescents’ recommended screen-time is two hours a day (not including homework), I think we all can agree that the majority of teens would struggle with only two hours — as well as adults.”
Social media is here to stay, and it is highly unlikely that parents can keep their kids away from it. Teaching teens how to manage the positive and negative aspects of social media and setting clear boundaries empowers them to incorporate social media into their lives on their terms.