While social media has become a valuable tool of communication and connectivity, research is showing it has also become a fixation for many teenagers and adolescents, who are unable to go for more than an hour without checking one or more social media apps. There is also a growing body of research suggesting a link between social media overuse and rates of anxiety and depression among young people. Because of this, it’s important that society in general — and parents in particular — pay more attention to how, when and where social media engagement is appropriate for kids.
Even though it’s been only a decade since Apple introduced the first iPhone, surveys show 73 percent of teens between 13 and 17 now have smartphones, and 93 percent of them use them to go online at least once a day. More than half log on to a social media site every day, while 22 percent check their social media accounts at least 10 times a day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Surveys by a nonprofit group called Common Sense Media show teenagers on average spend nine hours a day accessing media — including music, games, video and social media — mostly through handheld devices. Kids ages 8-12 are accessing online media an average of six hours a day.
While there may be no common agreement on how much time online is “excessive,” there is no question that the lure of the smartphone is powerful to the point of being domineering. When kids spend more than half of their waking hours tethered to a mobile media device, there is reason to look into what harm may follow. Disturbingly, in the decade since smartphones have grown to become ubiquitous, rates of anxiety, depression and suicide have increased among the teenage population. Some experts believe that may be coincidence, as opposed to cause and effect, but research does point to a correlation between incessant social media use and instances of mental health problems among teens and preteens.
A study published in the online journal Clinical Psychological Science says 48 percent of teens who spend at least five hours a day on an electronic device have at least one suicide risk factor, compared with 33 percent who spend less than two hours a day on a device. Psychologists report evidence of a link between high rates of social media contact and problems including sleeplessness, anxiety, sadness and diminishing self-esteem. For kids at the age when they are beginning to form social relationships and a perspective on their place in the world, the inputs of social media can be dramatic. Some become dependent on validation from peers who respond to social media posts. Others may suffer anxiety from the fear of missing out of something going on in their social circle. And then there are the threats of cyberbullying and online sexual harassment.
Concerns about the addictive nature of mobile devices are prompting various forms of activism. A coalition of major shareholders in Apple, for example, has called on the company to address the addictive properties of smartphone use, which they refer to as “digital heroin.” They would like the company to support studies on the consequences of overuse and to introduce more effective tools for parents to monitor and limit online use by their children.
We think the most effective approach to curbing any ill effects from excessive online exposure begins in the home, where parents have responsibility for overseeing their children’s online experience. Social media can be a valuable tool for education and socialization and to keep up on current events. There may be a fine line between appropriate use and troublesome overuse, but it falls to parents to identify that line and do what they can to keep their kids from crossing it.