Does social media cause teen anxiety?

The answer to this one is easy. Yes! Yes, social media can cause teen anxiety and adult anxiety, too, which I’m sure you already know personally. Ok I’ve answered that question but how helpful is my answer? Not very so let’s talk instead about what you, as a parent, are supposed to do about it.

It’d be easy to say, “Just don’t let your child have social media” but I don’t think that’s entirely realistic and I don’t think it gives your child the tools they’ll need to exist in a world where social media is a thing. Even if we choose to opt out of social media, depending on what your child ends up doing, they may need to have it.

An example of this would be professional networking. They might need to have LinkedIn. And socializing. I know that for my generation, there is an expectation that you’ll be on Facebook and that’s where some of my social groups do all of their event planning. If you’re not on FB, you’re going to miss the potluck invite.

And I’m sure there are ways social media will continue to embed itself in our lives that I can’t even imagine because I’m as, the kids say, an old and as an old my imagination is limited.

Also I can tell you now, as a therapist who has works with lots of teens, many of them who are not allowed to have social media have it anyway. They may download it to their phones and delete it so that they can have it sometimes but get rid of it before you catch them. They may create accounts on friends’ phones (I’ve known a lot of teens who do this) or they may find ways to access accounts on their Chromebooks or laptops. Which is to say, very often taking a zero tolerance policy is just going to push your teen to be secretive when what they’re really going to need is your help and guidance.

Besides even if your child doesn’t have social media, absolutely 100% agrees with you about it and it’s accessing it behind your back, the same isn’t true of their friends. According to the Common Sense Census put out by Northwestern University’s Center on Media and Human Development in 2016 (I will link to this PDF report in the show notes) 80% of teens have their own social media account and 23% of tweens — that’s kids 8 to 12 — have one. I’d be curious how those numbers changed over covid because I bet they went up. I know a whole bunch of little kids I know got that Facebook kid messenger during lockdown. Also this doesn’t take into account the risk of TikTok. 

This means your child may not have accounts but is likely to see things on friends’ phones or tablets.

This is is all to say that instead of doing a hard core, “No social media for you!” And thinking that’s solved our problems, we need to recognize that social media is a part of our kids’ lives whether we like it or not and help them build literacy around it.

This is what we know, social media can be fun, it can be educational and it can support relationships but it can also be harmful. It’s meant to be addictive. TikTok for example, is well known for serving its viewers exactly what they want to see when they want to see it. The algorithm is set up to keep you on there; it’s notoriously sticky that way. There are some studies that show the more attached we are to our screens, the more trouble we have being mindful. That is being present in the moment. When we struggle with even short experiences of boredom — for example, if we struggle to wait in line or wait for the kettle to boil without looking at our phones — we are training our brains to need constant new stimulation. 

To tie this back to anxiety, anxiety requires being able to sit with discomfort. Boredom is a form of discomfort. If we’re always avoiding boredom, then we’re not practicing that distress tolerance.

Kids need to know this and need to know how it works. But we can’t expect them to make great decisions about that. Heck, we struggle to make good decisions and our brains are fully developed. So we need to educate them but we also need to do things to protect them.

That can mean learning how to use the parental controls on our phones or on our home networks. It can mean blocking certain sites or social media. It can mean setting up screen limits. And these things take ongoing attention because our phone set ups change, because our kids get older and need different access, and also because our teens tend to be more tech savvy than we are. I know lots of teens who make it a sport to figure out how to undo their family or school internet limits and they’re awfully good at going on Reddit to figure out work arounds. Which is again, why we can’t just count on external controls. They are tools but we do need to keep talking.

Because we want to grow children who have the skills to navigate the realities of social media, we should be talking to them about how it makes them feel. They need to notice when going on Instagram brings up their fear of missing out or worries of not being included. They need to understand how filters work and how people curate their lives and how knowing that doesn’t always help us feel better looking at other people’s projected perfection.

We need to teach them practical things like how to block certain hashtags, how to handle it when they inevitably see something upsetting. We need to talk to them about ambivalence, which is when we know that looking at some accounts is. Upsetting and yet we want to look at them anyway. I’ve talked to so many kids who feel guilty for wanting to look at social media that they know is not good for them, particularly around disordered eating, for example. That’s a particular danger of social media. 

One of the other concerns for children and teens who are ons social media a lot is that they tend to be driven by emotional-focused coping, which is, “I need to feel better” instead of problem-solving focused coping, which is, “I need to address the problem that’s causing me trouble.” A simplification of this, would be someone who is worried about an exam and goes on TikTok to forget about it versus someone who is worried about an exam so makes time to study.

This is a special concern for our anxious kids. Kids who are anxious are already trying to manage their anxious feelings by avoiding the things that make them anxious.Social media can exacerbate this tendency.

And social media encourages this by prioritizing the accounts of influencers who tell us that if we follow their lead that we will feel better. 

This is why your children need you to be involved. I know it’s exhausting. Please remember there is not a one right way to handle this. We need to hold social media loosely. We need to stay on top of what our kids are using, keep the conversation open, do our research about what is good about the accounts and what is not. We need to educate our children to be good media consumers. We need to share with them what the research says and not condemn them for quote “giving in” to social media’s siren call. 

It is not immoral to like social media but lots of kids — like lots of adults — feel guilty about it. That’s not helpful. It’s fine to like social media but we need to remember that it belongs to us and we do not belong to it.

We should talk to them about not using their phones in the evening or at night but we might also need to help them with this by not allowing them to have their phones in their room or turning them off after a certain time and using screen time limits. 

I think for some children, especially kids who are interested in social justice, explaining how social media makes money off our free labor whether that’s making media or viewing it, might help them to get annoyed enough to limit their viewing. 

I mean it’s an ongoing conversation.

Back to those kids using TikTok to avoid their feelings, we can also do our part by continuing to challenge the Parenting Pitfalls and helping our teens connect what they learn in those contexts — whether that’s pulling back on reassurance or not helping them to avoid — so that they can figure out how to apply that in other areas of their lives, including social media.

Well that’s a lot. That’s a big topic and impossible to do justice in such a short podcast but I do hope that you’ll go check out the Commonsense Media report because that also shares information about managing social media and our kids and I think you’ll find it helpful.

Do you have a question you'd like me to answer on the show?

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