his past April in Michigan, U.S., a school bus filled with middle school students was travelling on its usual route to take the kids home. Suddenly, the driver had a medical episode and lost consciousness. As the bus began to veer off the road, 7th grader Dillon jumped into action: he ran to the driver’s seat, grabbed the steering wheel to steady the massive vehicle, and stepped on the brake. The bus’s CCTV caught the dramatic moment, concluding with Dillon shouting at his classmates to call 911.
Those children may owe their lives to Dillon’s quick response. But why was he the only one who noticed what was happening? Journalists interviewed the rest of the students on the bus, and each one answered that they didn’t notice anything because they were occupied on their smartphones, some with headphones in. And why wasn’t Dillon on his phone? Because his parents refused to get him one. His father told CBS News “What else are you going to do when you don’t have a phone? You’re going to look at people, you’re going to notice stuff. You’re going to look out the window. It’s a very powerful lesson, maybe a change-the-world kind of lesson.”
This story is just one example of a pervasive lack of situational awareness that can be blamed on our phone addiction. But it is specifically the harmful effects of social media on young people that Dr. Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General, focused his recent 19 page advisory on. While he says that these effects are not yet entirely understood, and that social media certainly has some benefits, nevertheless “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.”
At this point there is a strong correlation between increased social media use and increased diagnoses of anxiety and depression amongst teens, though not a clear causation. However, in my opinion, common sense can fill in the gaps until further studies are completed. When we are young children, we are blissfully unaware of the societal indicators of wealth and privilege that divide us into different classes. We choose playmates based on proximity and don’t compare ourselves to them, except along innocent parameters like who can run faster. But with adolescence comes greater awareness of everything, from our bodies to our lifestyles.
Perhaps you can remember your teen years before social media existed, the way I do. Arriving at school on a Monday and overhearing your friends talk about something they did together over the weekend could give you a pang of “Why wasn’t I invited?” Or coming back from summer holidays and hearing about a classmate who went to Europe may have had you asking your parents why they don’t take you anywhere so exotic. Or maybe puberty has arrived early for you, giving you pimples and hirsuteness that make you feel awkward next to your clear-skinned friends. These instances of comparison happened organically, and could easily be forgotten soon after noticing them. Now imagine yourself at that age with a social media account. You are literally signing yourself up for a constant feed of photos that highlight the best, most brag-worthy moments of your peers’ lives. You are consenting to be faced with an onslaught of these comparable instances.
Now you are aware of all the plans you are not invited to. You don’t just hear about your classmate’s European holiday, but see dazzling photos of luxury hotels and beautiful landscapes. You get a crash course in the social power of beauty by seeing how your pretty friend’s selfie gets twice as many likes as one of your general posts, no matter how witty your caption. You become acutely aware of your parents’ economic status as you see certain classmates wearing and tagging expensive clothing brands. And what is scary is that even if you’re aware on some level that this app is bringing about a feeling of “compare and despair”, it is designed with the intention of keeping you scrolling and engaged as long as possible, using tactics that your still-growing brain is very susceptible to. Is it any wonder then, that the U.S. is reporting soaring rates of mental health distress amongst teens, perhaps leading the surgeon general to issue this report?
On the other hand, there are some positive aspects of social media, like how it provides opportunities to express yourself and find your community elsewhere if you feel marginalised where you live. It can also be an easy way to practise activism and spread awareness of things we can do to help, for example with climate change. Still, these plus points are not enough to outweigh the potential dangers of unrestricted use. It is the parents’ responsibility to set rules concerning the pandora’s box of social media.
Dr. Murthy makes some practical suggestions in the report, such as keeping family mealtimes device-free, and establishing boundaries around what content is acceptable to post, and what should be kept private. The American Psychological Association gives a more specific and useful guide to follow, believing that parents need a multipronged approach that includes time limits, parental monitoring, and regular communication and discussion. Here is the APA’s 5 point guide to how you can protect your children while allowing them to still access these platforms:
Recognise that developing brains may be especially vulnerable to specific social media features.
“In early adolescence, brain regions associated with a desire for attention from peers become increasingly sensitive. Social media may exploit that desire. Meanwhile, brain areas important for self-control don’t fully develop until early adulthood.”
It is easy to see how this delicate stage of brain development combined with the core characteristics of Instagram (trying to get lots of likes/engagement on a post, expressing yourself to thousands of people at once) can have deleterious results. Therefore the first step is to be aware of this.
What to do:
“Limit social media use on platforms that include counts of likes or encourage excessive use. Use screen time settings available on most devices or on platforms to help teens set limits and learn self-control. Prohibit screen time that interferes with at least 8 hours of sleep a night to ensure healthy brain development among teens.”
Monitor and discuss your child’s social media use.
Monitoring means you should have access to your child’s account so you can set restrictions, prohibiting adult content as well as messages from strangers. You can respect your child’s privacy in other ways like by not snooping in their bedroom, but at this age they cannot claim a right to privacy in this sphere because of the potential dangers.
Discussion and healthy communication have never been more important! Without appearing fear-mongering or judgmental, you must keep a dialogue going about what your child is seeing and posting.
What to do:
“Talk to your teen weekly about how social media platforms work so they feel safe telling you about their experiences without judgement. Ask them what they saw on social media, how they understand what was posted, and pose hypothetical questions to them to learn how they would respond to various situations they might encounter online.”
Model healthy social media use.
As with all other habits like eating and exercise, we parents provide the primary model for our children on how to use social media. So you must first ensure your relationship with it is healthy.
What to do:
To demonstrate healthy habits, avoid using your phone whenever the family is together, especially at mealtimes. Let them see you reading a book, newspaper, or simply looking around when waiting at appointments or during travel. Have some go-to games that you all play during these periods like I-Spy. The APA makes this clever suggestion: “Take social media holidays as a family and discuss the challenges and temptations you all experience when away from social media for a long time.”
Watch for problematic social media use.
Look out for the following regarding their usage of social media: is it interfering with school and other commitments? Are they choosing it over in-person interactions? Is it preventing them from getting at least 8 hours of quality sleep? Is it inhibiting physical exercise? Do they keep using it even after expressing a desire to stop? Do they experience strong cravings to check it? Do they lie or use deceptive behaviour to spend time online?
What to do:
“Ask your child if any of these statements above are true for them. If you are concerned your child is dependent on social media or using it in unhealthy ways, consider enforcing new limits around accessing this technology. If you suspect your child is experiencing psychological harm or you are having difficulty managing your child’s social media use, a mental health professional may be able to help you find healthier ways to engage with the digital world.”
Teach social media literacy.
Teaching social media literacy should be a combined effort from schools, parents, peers, and the platforms themselves. Especially with the introduction of AI and Deepfake technology, it is more difficult than ever to determine what is genuine. If this whole subject is intimidating to you, I highly suggest you start by watching the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” together as a family. It is a startling look at how we all came to be slaves to smartphones, algorithms, and the endless dinging notifications, and will certainly spur some deep and honest conversations.
I hope this column has not made you too fearful, but instead empowered with the knowledge that this is yet another parental duty to take seriously. With regular monitoring and discussion, you can allow your child to have a healthy relationship with today’s inescapable technology.