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  • Gonzalo Laje

Navigating Your Child’s Social Media: Let’s start the conversation… (Part 1)

Children are drawn to social media because of content, presentation, and social connections. Regardless of age and parental efforts, children find access to social channels. While most social media outlets require teens to be 13 years of age, there are rarely, if ever, checks to confirm that an individual’s age is what they say it is. Sometimes caregivers think their child is safe because they’ve limited access to screens in the home. However, many children and teens find ways to access social media, even if they don’t have their own phones, tablets, or computers. They may use their friends’ devices or find ways around the controls on school or community devices. Simply being 13 (or 15 or 18) does not guarantee that a teen is developmentally mature enough to handle social media. These are just some of the reasons why we need to be having conversations and educating our children around social media use.

What concerns should I have about my child’s social media use, how does my child’s brain play into this, and what does the research say?

The reality is there are many concerns we need to consider surrounding social media. Even for our littlest kids, say, your 4 or 5 year old who may see an inappropriate commercial while watching an age appropriate show on a video site, or your elementary school kiddo who might not realize someone on the social video game they are playing is an adult pretending to be a child, there is a risk. Below are just some things to consider.

Our kids may be exposed to inappropriate content far earlier, and with far less predictability and control, than caregivers would like to have, even if the kids are using even the most benign seeming forms of social media. For example, kids may be doing something as innocent as watching other kids on social media, since there are many child and teen influencers, when an inappropriate ad might pop up. This could be something scary or sexual or violent. This may get into our children’s brains, impacting their thoughts and feelings, with short-term or long-term repercussions. The impact will depend on the child, their resilience, and other factors that we don’t yet understand.

Social media is there – all the time. If your child is being targeted by a bully, they have no escape. Cyberbullying is a very real concern, with the highest risk being among adolescent girls. Additionally, since social media is always there, many children are also constantly drawn to check their likes, follows, and post comments to see how they measure up to their peers. Many children and teens rely on these things for self-esteem and a sense of social standing. Many struggle with the fear of missing out (FOMO), leading their self-esteem to diminish and their self-worth to deflate when they do not realize that what they are seeing is not real – that the always happy, smiling, having fun family or friends they are seeing are just an illusion, or that the selfie has been curated by the individual or advertising agency, using filters and editing tools, and/or taking 30 or more shots just to get the perfect one. The stories we tell on social media are generally a moment in time – not a real story of day-to-day life, with emotional and social ups and downs. And are kids likely don’t recognize that. The stories we tell on social media represent moments in time, and often do not reflect real day-to-day life experiences which include emotional and social ups and downs. It is difficult for kids to recognize this.

Once on social media, it is very easy for children and teens, whose brains are not fully developed, to get swept up into ‘fake news’ or extreme content that brings forth heavy emotions and keeps them coming back, regardless of whether the content makes them feel good. For example, social media whistleblowers have pointed to pro-eating disorder, self-harm, destruction/aggression, and suicide content that children and teens stumble upon, often based on a simple, well-meaning search. They say that a child might, for example, search “healthy recipes” and end up with tips on how to lose weight. As they click more and stay longer on the social media, they may be drawn deeper into such content, and have a hard time stepping back out. Pro-anorexia content is a particular social media concern, as are pro-muscle dysmorphia (bigorexia), pro-self-harm, pro-violence, and pro-suicide content. For example, pro-anorexia content may lead children and teens to engage in behaviors to promote thinness, to view their bodies negatively, and to engage in disordered eating, while pro-suicide content may teach teens how to successfully suicide. Social media whistleblowers have indicated that the more time our kids spend on social media, the more polarized and extreme the content becomes, and the more what they see changes based on their likes, follows, and comments. For some teens, social media may encourage early engagement in sexual behaviors, including problematic sexual behaviors (e.g., unprotected or early sexual activity, exposure to sexual images, including pornography at a young age).

Research is in progress to fully understand the impacts of social media on the human brain. Social media has not been around long, so we don’t have years of data to understand the long-term impact. Still, there are some things we are beginning to understand. Some research is showing differences in the brains of kids and teens spending more time on screens. Some research suggests that those using screens more often have changes in their brains similar to changes that come with overuse of alcohol, for example, while other research says it is not time spent on the screen that leads to such brain changes, but rather problematic use of screens (e.g., addiction) that leads to these changes. Early research also suggests that some kids may be at higher risk for the dangers associated with social media. These groups may include, but may not be limited to, those with already vulnerable mental health, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, minorities, girls, and ADHD’ers. That said, it is also important to understand that children’s brains are resilient, and neuroplasticity works in their favor, as we consider the possible ramifications of screen and social media use over time.

Social media is designed to capture attention and elicit strong emotions, even if the emotions are not pleasurable. When we see something happy, we want more. When we see something sad, or scary, or gross, it is hard to look away. Our emotions and are senses are aroused. Even more than for adults, kids’ brains are ruled by emotions. Big feelings keep them engaged and keep them coming back for more. And social media’s content pulls for big emotions! Kids and teens may feel a pull to keep on checking their social media, and every ‘ding’ they hear and notification they receive may activate the reward centers of their brains. This is a dopamine hit, and each experience leaves our kids and teens craving more. For adults, the frontal lobe of the brain is developed, which makes it easier (though not always easy) for us to recognize when we need to disengage, when the feeling is not pleasurable, when the content may not be accurate, or when it is inappropriate. For kids and teens, the frontal lobe is still developing – even into their 20s – so they may not have the ability to balance out the emotions with rational thought about the consequences, or the knowledge, reasoning, and problem solving to parse through what is real, what is extreme or polarized, what is inappropriate, and even what is damaging and dangerous. Kids and teens may be more influenced by peer pressure to follow social media trends – even dangerous ones. The emotional and reward systems of their brains develop earlier than the front lobe, meaning that kids are more sensitive to strong emotions and to feeling accepted and rejected by peers, and they are also more impulsive than adults, placing them at higher risk for being hurt or mislead on social media.

Some research indicates that increased engagement with social media negatively impacts academic performance and concentration. Executive functions may be particularly impacted. Too much time on social media may also negatively impact sleep, and many children are spending time on social media and screens at night, decreasing or interrupting their sleeping hours. Because of the dopamine charge that comes with social media and screen use in general, we may find our kids struggling to unplug, sneaking devices at night, struggling to complete homework, melting down when they can’t have their devices, losing track of time, disrupting their focus with each social media check in, and withdrawing from other activities that would otherwise be fun. Along with reduced attention, creativity may also decrease. Physical health may also be impacted by too much time spent on social media, and screen time in general, ranging from changes in eyesight to headaches to reduced physical activity impacting both physical and emotional well-being.

The screens and social media may indeed be addicting. When kids step away from social media, they may experience a rise in cortisol, leading to increased anxiety, and keeping them going back for more because they are wondering what they are missing, fearing someone else has more likes or followers, worrying about how they look and how they are presenting themselves, and again, not realizing others are doing the same. Social media may also create a deep desire for attention – particularly in kids and teens – when they see others getting it. They may feel a need to be present and feel like they are missing something fundamental if they are not there. This can be stressful and anxiety producing, and only checking their devices may release that anxiety –temporarily. These things happen for adults too, by the way.

Some research suggests that social media can lead to or increase both depression and anxiety. Similarly, some research suggests that those who are already depressed or anxious may seek out more social media use. In some cases, it is not clear whether the former or latter is the issue, and more research is being completed to better understand which is more commonly at play. Regardless, social media may allow children and teens to become more isolated and more targeted or victimized. Furthermore, children and teens may encounter inaccurate or even dangerous information when they seek help on social media, leading to acting out, destructive, and dangerous behaviors.

For many teens, social media danger is very real, while at the same time screen use, and sometimes social media use, is soothing and regulating for them. For example, many teens play video games because the games fully engage their senses and allow them to escape real world stressors. However, sometimes caregivers don’t know much about what they are playing, who they are playing with (if anyone), and what else the teens are doing while on screens. So, finding the balance can be hard.

Please also look for Part 2 of this article, coming soon.


Jaclyn Halpern, PsyD

Director/Co-Founder, The SOAR for Psychotherapy and Testing; Licensed Psychologist & Clinical Supervisor


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