Experts have warned about — and parents have worried about — the impact of screen time and social media on the mental health of children, especially adolescents. A new study suggests parents should turn their attention to their own social media practices for the sake of their teens.

Teaching by Example,” released Tuesday by the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University, finds that two old worries — the amount of time adolescents spend on social media and the age when they get their first smartphone — are not reliable predictors of risk for mental health challenges among teens.

Parents’ unhealthy social media habits, however, may put their children at risk. In general, the report says, parent media use is an even stronger predictor of their children’s mental health than the child’s own social media use.

That doesn’t mean teens can use social media without the risk of negative impact. But it’s how teens use social media, rather than how long or how old they are, that could be a force for good or bad things in their lives, said study co-author Spencer James, an associate professor in BYU’s School of Family Life and a Wheatley Institution fellow.

The report said depression was higher in teens whose parents reported higher levels of personal social media use. About 10% of adolescents whose parents report using social media at low levels are depressed, compared to nearly 40% of those whose parents use social media at high levels. 

Among the study’s other findings:

  • About 15% of parents say they spend more than eight hours a day on social media.
  • Among kids whose parents spend less than a half-hour a day on social media, between 7%-10% say they are depressed. The number surges to 33%-41% of kids whose parent spends more than seven hours on social media.
  • The vast majority of kids who spend hours and hours a day on social media — 80% — have parents who do the same.
  • For most teens, frequently curating social media feeds is associated with poor mental health. Among those who routinely curate their feeds, 86% of females and 79% of males report depression. Among those who seldom or never clean their feeds, 35% of females and 22% of males report depression.
  • About 15% of the adolescents said their parents use social media a lot and are often too distracted to interact when then children ask questions or want to talk to them.

Youths have different vulnerability to the risks that come along, including from smartphone and social media use, the study said. It’s called differential susceptibility and helps explain why broad statements that something is good or bad tend to be wrong for some teens.

James agrees that the same experience affects people differently.

“A lot of this has to do with maturity, a lot with family background. It has to do with your socioeconomic status, the quality of your education, the type of neighborhood you live in,” he said. “All of these factors are going to mean that we shouldn’t expect the influence of social media to be the same for all people at all times. Certainly not among adolescents, a group that is undergoing significant maturation or developmental change during this period.”

Why parental use matters

When parents are so distracted by technology that they can’t seem to give their kids their full attention, it interferes with parent-child interaction and hurts that relationship. The researchers call that “technoference” and said it can impact children’s mental health and sense of well-being.

About half of the adolescents in the nationally representative study said technoference isn’t a problem in their homes. But for 15%, it’s a major problem. The result is young people who feel they’re not important or a priority and feel they can’t count on their parents to engage with them when they need help or have something they want to say. A similar number said their parents aren’t highly responsive, comforting or understanding.

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The report notes that warm parenting was strongly associated with an adolescent’s mental health. ”Warmth is not a guarantee of good mental health — there are teens with depression in every single category. ... But warm parenting appears to make a difference,” the report said. 

Technoference is strongly related to child outcomes, too, the report says. When there’s very little parental technoference, 1 in 12 of the children struggle with depression. But nearly two-thirds of adolescents who live in homes with a lot of parental technoference are depressed.

“When a parent routinely uses social media while their child is trying to get their attention, it sends the message that the child is not seen and valued by the parent. Not surprisingly that can affect a child’s state of mind,” said Sarah Coyne, a professor in BYU’s School of Family Life and the study’s lead author.

How teens use social media matters

If adolescents are comparing themselves to others, it can lead to body image disorders. And though the study authors suspected that frequently curating their social media feeds could be helpful for youths because they could choose those with whom they interact, they found instead that the practice is associated with poor mental health.

Findings on transgender and nonbinary youth were in some ways opposite, however. Ninety-four percent of transgender and nonbinary adolescents who don’t curate their feeds report being depressed. When they curated their feeds, picking and choosing with whom they would interact, they had less depression.

James believes that may be because transgender and nonbinary teens often don’t feel safe or accepted in the real world, but online can find acceptance and support. Other youths who pick and choose may be selecting people they’d like to emulate — and end up depressed or with body image problems because they compare themselves and feel they fall short. 

The study found protective factors, too. Those who take positive action on social media —posting positive comments, liking others’ posts, instant messaging friends — were vastly more likely to have a positive body image than those who don’t use social media in active ways. 

But the researchers warn that fewer than 1 in 5 adolescents consistently use social media in that type of active way. 

Passive browsing didn’t provide the benefit seen with active use, but it didn’t seem to drive negative results particularly, either, the researchers said.

The survey also asked each adolescent’s favorite social media site: TikTok took the crown, with 31.8%, followed by Instagram at 25.8%, Facebook at 19.2%, Snapchat at 10.8%, Twitter at 5% and What’sApp a favorite for 2.2%.

A false solution?

The study rejects the “common narrative” that mental health would get better if teens would just stop using social media and get off their phones. Previous research suggests screen time accounts for just “0.4% of the variance associated with depression and anxiety,” it noted.

Researchers likened that to the impact eating potatoes has on mental health — “an association the news media rightly rarely highlights.” What that boils down to is that “99.6% of the variance in mental health was explained by other factors” like having a nutritious breakfast or getting enough sleep.

James emphasized differences again: “We wouldn’t expect people who primarily use social media to connect with their family members and share pictures of babies and cousins to be affected the same way as people that are constantly squabbling over politics online with their crazy uncle and their high school buddy.”

He dismissed the idea that the whole issue would be solved if everyone just turned off their phones and computers and talked to each other. Families that have tough rules surrounding media use do not appear to get better outcomes.

“In fact, the opposite is true. We found adolescents whose parents set very strict rules around social media were more likely to be depressed. And what this suggests to us is that parents who explain principles for behaviors or who articulate the motivations behind the rules are more likely to find success, rather than merely setting strict rules,” James said.

About the survey

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The nationally representative survey was fielded between May and August 2021 and included two groups of subjects — 2,231 adolescents ages 10-17 who were asked about their social media use, mental health and how their parents use social media. Additionally, a paired group of 201 adolescents and their parents were also surveyed. The subjects were on Qualtrics survey panels. 

Throughout the report, the authors emphasized that they found a correlation, not causation. Parental use was highly associated with mental health outcomes for their adolescent children, but there might be other factors the study didn’t show, they said. They emphasized the need for more study on the subject to say what causes the differences. 

“Our findings on technoference point to ways that a parent’s technology use can potentially disrupt, parent-child relationships,” said Emily Weinstein, a research director at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and another co-author of the report. “Future research needs to examine both the content and context of parental social media use as linked to adolescent mental health before making too many conclusions.”

The study’s other co-authors are Megan Gayle, a recent BYU graduate, and Megan Van Alfen, a BYU graduate student.

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