If you’re a parent of a teenager, it’s highly likely you’ve caught yourself in a situation similar to this:
It’s late evening and you’re finally wrapping up your last email of the workday. It’s time to get dinner on the table. You look in the den and your teen is scrolling on their phone — again. It seems whenever you see them, your teen is on social media. All. The. Time.
Teens use social media to connect with others and as a form of self identity. The reality is that what’s making teens connect could actually make them feel more alone. Read on to learn about the dangers of too much screen time and what SonderMind’s Chief Medical Officer, Doug Newton, MD, MPH, says you can do to help your teen connect — offline.
The damaging effects of screen time on teenagers
A recent study in the Journal of Adolescence reports a decline in the mental well-being of teenagers after 2012, coinciding with the rise of mobile phone usage and online access. This trend has grown with the increasing usage of smartphones, especially the rise in loneliness.
Depression symptoms have also increased significantly. A 2021 study showed that social media usage was directly related to a rise in depression, and that teens with moderate to severe symptoms of depression were online far more than teens in the same age group. In fact, 34% of teens with moderate to severe depressive symptoms are on social media almost all the time.
Signs excessive screen time is affecting your teen
A reasonable amount of screen time can help your teen connect with others and keep them up to date with current events. With too much screen time, however, the roller coaster ride of highs and lows can occur, from feeling good after a “like” or a new “follow” to body-shaming and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). These unhealthy reactions can manifest in many ways. Here are a few things to look for in your teen:
Do they have problems in school such as:
- Lower grades
- Reading fewer books
- Difficulty focusing and completing assignments
Are there changes in their behavior or activities such as:
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Spending less time with friends and family
- Not having enough outdoor or physical activity
- Bullying, vandalism, or stealing
Do you see personality changes that include:
- Problems with self-image and self-esteem
- Mood problems
- Suicidal thoughts
- Being quick to get irritated or angry
- Being argumentative
Some of these personality changes can be a normal part of development for teens. However, they’re worth paying attention to as they could be the result of too much screen time.
If your teen or someone you know has suicidal thoughts and is in crisis, call 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also find other emergency resources here.
Five steps you can take to break social media habits
In his Psychology Today column, Dr. Newton recommends five tips for parents to help teens break their social habits. Hint: keep it relaxed and ease into the convo.
1. Talk openly with your teen
Have an honest dialogue with your teen. Ask them what social media platforms they use and how often they think they use them. Keep the conversation relaxed and easy. And listen to your teen. Show your interest. By keeping the conversation relaxed, it can help you transition to some of the tougher conversations below.
2. Understand why and when
Recent Pew Research shows that YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook are the most used social media platforms, with 35% of teens using one of these platforms constantly. Ask your teen what they look at on social media. Is it make-up tutorials? Are they following celebrities or influencers?
When are they using social media — do they use it because they’re feeling bored, lonely, nervous, or happy? Knowing why and when your teen spends time on social media helps you and your teen understand how they use it in their lives and can prepare you for the next steps.
3. Share the stats
Your teen might not be aware of the effects of spending too much time on social media. Since teens may be more likely to take advice from someone other than their parents, try sharing with them the research about declining mental health and social media, and the negative effects of social media on a teen’s developing brain. This time, it’s not you saying “because I said so.” It’s showing them facts, so the research may resonate with them and help them see the true downsides of too much screen time.
4. Set boundaries
Here, you can help your teen feel like they’re a partner. Talk with them about how much they think is appropriate to spend on social media a day. What changes can they make to make it a more positive experience? For example:
- If certain accounts make them feel inadequate, they can unfollow them.
- If they can’t help reaching for their phone at bedtime, how about keeping their phone in another room at night?
- If they have too many apps, what if they remove one or two?
Small steps like these can help train the brain to need less screen time interaction.
5. Lead by example
Lastly, you can also ask yourself the same question “How much time do I spend on social media?” Do you find yourself reaching for the phone at night or out of habit? Do you also wait for “likes” and comments? If you’re spending a lot of time on social media, your teen sees it. You can be the greatest role model. So try cutting back on your screen time. Find activities you can do together with your teen. This will help both you and them decrease screen time, and practice what you’ve been talking about — together.
If you or your teen need extra support
If you’re struggling with how to start this conversation with your teen or if you’re seeing changes in your teen’s personality and behaviors, you might want to consider talk therapy and talking to a mental health professional. SonderMind therapists can help you start the conversation and help your teen develop the skills to connect with others in ways that improve their self-worth and mental well-being.