Bots and corporations excluded, there are 4.9 billion social media users globally, meaning 60.49% of the global population use social media. That is unsurprising given that there are nitch networks for just about everyone in addition the the giants like Facebook and Twitter (now X). But what is social media usage doing for our wellness? It may differ by generation and, in some regards, we are not entirely sure.
Take adolescents as an example. The New York Times recently summarized the state of the science for this group and, yes, social media is of concern because the rapidly developing adolescent brain may be uniquely vulnerable to what the platforms have to offer. But the science is not nearly as settled as some of the most dire headlines would make it seem. Biologically, during adolescence, neuronal signals do not always travel through the brain rapidly enough to help kids regulate their emotions and impulses as mylnation continues to occur, and likewise, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for tasks like weighing, consequences and planning is still maturing. But extant researcher has yet to show any kind of consistent causal connection between social media use and poor mental health outcomes is difficult as a function of their unique needs or biological vulnerabilities. So why are mental health-related E.R. visits are up, and why is anxiety skyrocketing as social media bombards kids with unrealistic academic and health messages, dangerous and deadly challenges, and disinformation? As ever, the message is complicated.
Like many things, social media is not inherently good or bad. Rather, the changes happening in adolescents’ brains may make them particularly drawn to these platforms and more susceptible to the potential pitfalls. When tweens start obsessing about their social lives — talking endlessly about their peers and who sits at the “popular table” — that is a sign that they are maturing normally. But now, adolescents are experiencing those changes in an online world that is creating the opportunity for reward and social feedback incessantly, almost 24/7. And that’s a combination to be concerned about for teens.
The moral of the story? It is important to talk to our children early and often about the function that social media is playing in their lives but not just emphasizing the negatives. Encourage them to build meaningful connections, but also encourage them to diversify how they are connecting on and offline. How do we promote teen wellness in the digital age? Here are some tips offered by Children’s Hospital of Orange County:
- Encourage teens to be involved in a variety of free-time activities, like spending time with friends, joining clubs or after-school activities, and exercising.
- Encourage your teen to be physically active every day and get enough sleep.
- Turn off all screens during meals and at least an hour before bedtime.
- Keep devices with screens out of your teen’s bedroom after bedtime and don’t allow a TV in your teen’s bedroom.
- Spend time together with your teen watching TV, playing games or going online. Use this time as a chance to talk and learn together.
- Teach your teen about safe Internet and social media use. Make sure they know the dangers of sharing private information online, cyberbullying or sexting.
- Set a good example. Turn off TVs and other screens when not in use. Don’t leave screens on in the background. Turn off or mute your phone when you’re not using it and during family times, like meals.