According to the Centre for Digital Wellbeing located in the ACT ‘The design of social media platforms is reframing our digital experience and altering patterns of human behaviour and social connection.’
So why does social media have such an impact on their mental health? Let’s start with the positive because, although communication between children, teenagers and even adults used to be a lot more face to face, social media for your child is about connectivity, creativity, and fun with their friends.
Face to face communication can be quite confronting at times and social media can provide a platform for them to reach out to friends, family members or other trusted adults to talk about the tough stuff. It also allows them to keep in touch with family and friends from afar in a way that they like to communicate. They say it takes a village and social media does promote a community environment.
There is a lot of scientific research around the impacts of social media on children and it tends to be a cautionary tale. Like with anything when raising children and teens there are limitations, risks, and considerations, with your child and their environment.
An adolescent brain is in a state of growth, meaning although there may be strong maturity displayed in some areas they are still learning how to manage complex situations and tend to rely on the emotional and impulsive part of their brain.
Perspective and considered decisions can be hard to achieve especially in a digital environment for a few reasons.
1 Communicating digitally means we don’t have the benefit of non-verbal cues to inform the interpretation of what someone is saying. Due to developing maturity this can cause fights and sometimes long lasting friendship breakdown. Also dispute resolution is tricky when disagreements are public and open to comment by others who can fan the fire.
2 Peer pressure and self-esteem are two really important influences in social media. These influences are powerful and not to be underestimated. Think TikTok challenges that have seen all sorts of children following trends like the Skullbreaker and Blackout challenge. Think Instagram, snapchat and TikTok filtered images showing perfect skin, perfect bodies, and perfect hair all under the #goals. Making comparisons between these digitally altered images and themselves can warp the way they think about themselves and can have strong affects on their mental health. ‘How digital technologies affect adolescent psychological well-being and mental health’, a study conducted at the University of Cambridge by Dr Amy Orben, an experimental psychologist, identified that girls are more susceptible the mental health challenges at an earlier ager than boys. Reporting ages 11-13 for girls in comparison to ages 14-15 for boys.
3 Exposure to distressing or inappropriate content is something that unfortunately is very common. This could be content about pornography, assault, self-harm, war, poverty, violence, or racism. Content control on social media platforms can be questionable and your child or teen may not be equipped to process or feel embarrassed to talk to you about.
4 Trying to find a healthy balance can be difficult especially when social media algorithms are designed to keep us scrolling and checking our accounts. Adults and children alike are susceptible to addiction with social media however the difference is adults are more equipped to recognise the signs and self-regulate their behaviour (mostly). The main attraction to social media for children and teens is having fun and keeping in touch with their friends whenever they want. Newsfeeds, reels, and stories can have them scrolling for hours long after the initial contact with their friends. It’s like a rabbit hole but doesn’t have to be.
We can be thankful that we live in an age that wellbeing and mental health of children and adults alike is an issue that is widely acknowledged. In Australia and across the world there are associations, charitable organisations and support groups that advocate for the mental health of children. At a family level, encouraging your children to prioritise their digital wellbeing by talking about how using technology is affecting their emotions, use wellbeing tools within apps to help with screentime and coming up with strategies as a family, will ensure everyone is having a positive experience online or can find recognise when they need support.