Addiction to social media can leave growing children vulnerable to a range of risks – from body image issues to anxiety, depression, or social withdrawal, writes Debasmita Sinha
A few decades ago, parents used to worry about their teenaged children falling into bad company or doing poorly at exams. But today, they should probably be concerned about the rising incidence of poor mental health among adolescents and teenagers worldwide.
Mental health conditions are one of the main causes of illness and disability among adolescents (individuals aged 10-19 years).
And suicide is the fourth most common cause of death in people aged 15-19 years, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
While the pandemic certainly has had a role to play in disrupting their academic and social lives, social media addiction is also being blamed for the current state of teenagers’ mental health.
The rising popularity of the internet and social media, especially in the last two years, has increased the time young people spend on their devices. Nearly 70% of the five daily hours Indians spend on their smartphones – which is an hour more than before the pandemic – is spent on social media, photo and video apps. Given that teenagers and adolescents comprise roughly a third of social media users, we are seeing significant numbers of young social media users being added daily.
Why is this significant? Using social media, by itself, is not a bad thing. However, children are especially vulnerable to its misuse. Half of all mental health issues begin by age 14, says the WHO. At this stage, overuse or addiction to social media can leave growing children vulnerable to a range of risks – from body image issues to social anxiety, depression, or social withdrawal.
It also puts them at greater threat of being cyberbullied. According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, there was a 400% jump in cybercrimes against children in 2020 compared to the previous year. This could be because more children were logged in during the pandemic.
A recent UNICEF report found that 1 in 7 teens and adults (aged 15-24) in India reported “often feeling depressed or having little interest in doing things”. Despite this, many youngsters enjoy free access to social media. Last year, a survey by India’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) found that 43% of 8-18-year-olds had a social networking account, and that 63% of them use their parents’ smartphones to access the internet.
Helping a teenager identify and overcome social media addiction is primarily the responsibility of their parents and teachers. So, let’s first start with the mental health issues associated with social media addiction, and then discuss what you can do to help your teen address it.
Mental health issues associated with social media overuse
Teenagers or young adults who spend most of their time on social media can find it harder to communicate in real-life situations. They may also experience feelings of inadequacy when constantly bombarded with images of others living so-called “perfect” lives.
Besides these, research has found connections between social media addiction and certain mental health issues. These include the following.
Depression and anxiety
Multiple studies show correlations between time spent on social networking sites and higher depression. Overuse of social media is also linked to low self-esteem, sadness, anxiety or loneliness.
One of the major reasons for this is peer pressure. Teens and young adults are constantly under pressure to be on social media and post photos or messages. In some cases, this can turn into a popularity contest of sorts where some children feel excluded.
Then there is the barrage of ‘negative’ content teens may be subject to – hate messages, morphed photos/videos, fake news, glorification of violence, substance abuse, and stories of suffering, etc. All these can be difficult for young minds to process and can lead to a decline in their mental health.
As they transition from childhood to adulthood, adolescents become more conscious of their bodies. The expectations to conform to a certain weight or shape can put teenagers under a lot of pressure. There are also social media trends like ‘mukbang’ or its opposite, near-starvation-based diets, that can cause them to have an unhealthy relationship with food.
Eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating are considered mental health disorders. One study in Karnataka found that 26% of the 1600 surveyed students were prone to eating disorders. While this number is not necessarily representative of all teens, there are global studies which indicate a clear correlation between social media use and disordered eating.
The stimulating and addictive nature of social media has been extensively documented. Therefore, it’s not surprising that overuse correlates to poorer sleep.
A 2016 study found that when teenagers used social media more often, used it at night-time, and were highly emotional invested in social media, they were more likely to report worse sleep quality (as well as higher levels of anxiety and depression).
Does your teenager have an unhealthy relationship with social media?
Social media addicts exhibit similar signs to alcohol or gambling addicts – obsessiveness, social anxiety, depression, withdrawal symptoms (on being denied access to social media), etc.
Here are some common symptoms to watch out for.
- Your teen regularly prefers to spend time on social media, even if it affects their health, studies, relationships, or other important priorities.
- They keep checking their phones during conversations with others.
- They keep procrastinating important tasks in order to spend time on their devices.
- Asking them to reduce their social media usage evokes an angry reaction or tantrum.
- They lie about their social media usage.
How to protect teenagers from the mental health risks of social media
Now that you have an idea of how social media affects the mental health of teenagers, here’s what you can do as a parent, loved one, or teacher or mentor.
Be patient and don’t judge
Social media addiction may seem like a frivolous problem to many adults, but to teenagers and adolescents, it can be very real. This is also because younger people’s brains are wired differently than those of adults. So, focus on being supportive and not judgemental.
If you suspect your child’s over-use of social media is affecting their mental health, sit down with them and have an open discussion about their health and wellbeing. Try to explore solutions together without losing your patience or temper.
Don’t introduce a blanket ban
Preventing the child from using technology – e.g., by snatching their phone or not allowing them any social media accounts – is neither practical nor desirable. Focus instead on having reasonable restrictions on technology usage, and clearly explain to your teenager why those restrictions exist. Remember that there are many positive aspects to social media as well.
Many adolescents never learn about the ‘dark side’ of social media addiction because no one’s ever spoken to them about it. So, take out some time to sit down with your son or daughter and explain – with data – the dangers of social media addiction and its impact on mental health.
If you feel that your child doesn’t take your advice seriously, introduce them to a professional counsellor who’s trained to help people with such issues.
Help them plan their schedule
Sometimes, obsessive phone usage can arise due to a simple reason: a disorganised schedule. Help your teenager create a schedule that covers everything, from their classes and studies to their hobbies, socialising (in person), gaming, exercise, sleep, etc. And yes, make sure to put in some me-time where they can be by themselves too.
Practice what you preach
If you spend all your free time on your phone or computer, your teenagers are not likely to heed your advice on cutting social media use. Hence, try to model healthy technology habits that your children can watch and learn from.
Finally, it’s important to tell your teen that you’re always around to help and support them whenever they feel low. Not only will this will make them feel secure; it also makes it more likely that they will seek you out for advice or help whenever they feel distressed for any reason.
About the author:
Debasmita Sinha is a Psychologist and Clinical Director at Manah Wellness, workplace wellbeing expert, helping organisations engage and support employees around emotional health and wellbeing. Working with over 50 Organisations and over 18000 Employees, Manah Wellness focuses on building proactive, personalised and preventive emotional wellbeing strategies for progressive organisations. Companies, HR, and employees can get access to mental health and wellbeing here.