The words are not mine, but those of the U.S. Surgeon General, in a recently published advisory on teens and social media use. I wish I could write off his words as unnecessarily alarmist but I see the negative effects of excessive screen time all the time.
So, what exactly is the problem with teens and social media use? According to a growing body of research, the more time children and adolescents spend in front of screens, the more susceptible they are to suffer from mental health problems such as aggression, anxiety and depression. Social media is also linked to worse self-esteem among girls and increases the risk of cyber bullying and harassment.
The advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General goes as far as saying that “…while social media may have benefits for some children and adolescents, there are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”
The fact that screen time displaces other activities that benefit mental health, like sleep, physical activity, spending time in nature and seeing people face to face, only compounds the problem. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children today spend on average seven hours per day on entertainment media, including social media. You don’t need to master college level calculus to figure out that this schedule doesn’t leave time for much else.
Smart phones are everywhere, all the time
Smart phones – and their endless dopamine-inducing social media feeds – are now so ubiquitous that being without one for even 24 hours is unthinkable to a lot of 12-year-olds. (I know, because I tried suggesting that the kids in my daughter’s sixth grade class leave their phones at home for their overnight class trip, so they wouldn’t get distracted by social media or stuck playing games instead of hanging out in real life. They cried child abuse and threatened with mutiny.) Some start showing serious withdrawal symptoms after as little as 15 minutes without their phone and can’t sit through a 30-minute dinner without starting to fidget with one. (Also witnessed during said class trip.) Forget getting them to turn the phone off at bedtime, today’s teens are always on standby and are used to falling asleep to (and being woke up by) an irregular symphony of social media notifications.
According to a Swedish survey, four out of ten teenagers feel like they spend too much time online, and as many as seven in ten parents worry about it. But the parents are tired of screen time battles and feel like they’re losing. “When my Dad thought I watched to much TV, he just pulled the plug on the thing. Today, when every kid has a smart phone in their pocket, it’s just so much harder,” one parent lamented.
At my 15-year-old daughter’s school, the phones even come into the classroom, where they are secretly used for playing games, texting friends and scrolling social media. “The ninth graders are set in their ways; old habits die hard,” one teacher said and shrugged when I questioned why the school didn’t require the phones to be locked up during class. The adults in the room had given in and given up.
Taking collective action
As a parent of a teenager and tween myself, both of whom have smart phones, I know that screen time battles are hard. If there’s one regret I have, it is that I didn’t delay giving my girls smart phones – and access to certain social media apps – longer. Once that Pandora’s box was open, keeping track of appropriate apps, staying on top of parental controls and generally preventing the kids from getting totally consumed by the tiny screen got far more difficult than before. I know there are other parents who feel the same way. While we can’t go back in time, we can do our best to ensure that our teens have a healthier and more balanced relationship with screens in general and social media in particular going forward.
The U.S. Surgeon General recommends creating a family media plan (you can find a great online tool for that here), establishing tech-free zones, making sure all devices are turned off at night, encouraging unstructured and offline connections with others, and modeling the behavior we want to see in our children. Just as important as setting reasonable rules, is to have open conversations with our teens about their experiences online, inappropriate content and behavior, and to be supportive if they have been harassed.
I’m also a great believer in parents banding together. When we take collective action, we help create new norms and cancel out the most common argument that kids use to wear down their parents’ defences, namely “everybody else has a phone/Snapchat/Tiktok” or “nobody else has any screen time restrictions”. We may not agree on everything, but let’s at least decide not leave a walk-over to the screens. If social media is one big experiment, as the U.S. Surgeon General warns, our teenagers are going to need all the support and guidance from the adult world that they can get.
A new advisory says there’s not enough evidence to conclude that social media is safe for children. It’s time for adults to band together when it comes to teens and social media use.