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Worried about your teen’s online habits? Here’s how to help.

Teenager looking at smartphone

When it comes to social media, there’s a fine line between healthy online connections and overwhelming social pressure. You can help your teen stay on the right side.

Elizabeth Millard

By Elizabeth Millard

Teens do a lot of clicking and scrolling these days. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 95% of U.S. teenagers said they had smartphone access, and nearly half reported being online “almost constantly.” This is according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey. And since the lockdowns, that number has likely gone up.

With their noses in their phones more than ever, it’s no wonder that screen time and social media use have become common battlegrounds between parents and teens.

Most of the time, the goal is balance. Yes, you might want them to stay connected with friends. But maybe you also want them to keep up with their chores and to-dos, stay safe and be engaged with the outside world (and even read a real book once in a while).

No matter what worries you about your teen’s online habits, don’t wave the white flag just yet. Here’s how to tell if social media use is taking a toll on your teen — and how to build a bridge toward compromise.

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The health impacts of social media use on teens

First, the good news: Not all social media use is bad. How it impacts your teen will come down to a mix of factors, including their personality and perspective.

A major worry parents have is that endless scrolling will lead to loneliness or depression. On this point, the research is mixed.

A study published in JAMA Psychiatry followed nearly 7,000 teens from across the U.S. The researchers found that those who spent more than 3 hours a day on social media had a greater risk of depression and anxiety, and even social troubles such as bullying.

Another study, published in Scientific Reports, surveyed teens 6 times a day for a week and found that the effect differed from teen to teen. About 44% said it had no impact on them, 46% said they felt better and 10% said they felt worse.

So just because your teen spends a lot of time on their phone doesn’t mean they’re doomed to feel lonely or insecure. But how do you know if your kid is in that 10%? Read on to find out.

Signs that social media use may be hurting your child

Like adults, many teens may use these apps to zone out after a busy day or when they feel stressed.

“Intentionally taking the time to wind down is totally acceptable, as long as the time begins with intentions and ends with a goal achieved,” says Hannah Paull. She’s a psychologist at Berman Psychotherapy in Atlanta. “The trap we often fall into is when we use technology and social media as a means of avoidance. Our time spent in front of a screen takes us away from responsibilities or relationships we value.”

That might be easier to see in yourself. But what does it look like in teens?

There are 3 main warning signs to watch for, says Anandhi Narasimhan, MD. She’s a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist who specializes in treating children and adolescents.

  • Red flag #1: Increasingly uninterested in engaging with friends in person
  • Red flag #2: Feeling more depressed or discouraged because they’re comparing themselves to others
  • Red flag #3: Becoming very irritable when you try to set limits or encourage them to do other things

These are the most obvious and common signs, Dr. Narasimhan says. And they’re solid indicators that social media use is negatively affecting your teen’s behavior or mental health.

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How to start the conversation with your teen

As anyone with a teenager knows, having a productive discussion can be tricky (especially when they have a phone in their hand). And if your teen is feeling defensive, that makes it even more challenging.

But that doesn't mean you should avoid the topic. It’s important to make sure your teen can use social media in a beneficial way, says Dr. Narasimhan. The goal is to communicate so that you both feel heard.

Avoid coming down hard and setting limits right away, Dr. Narasimhan suggests. “Have an open, honest conversation about your concerns and why you think there should be limits,” she says.

You can even discuss how it can be more gratifying to use social media as a reward, rather than relying on it as a habit. As Dr. Narasimhan says, that point of view can help them understand how to manage their time around social media use.

After you’ve laid out your concerns, ask your teen what boundaries they think are reasonable. And it’s okay to start small. Even a strategy as simple as putting phones in a separate location while finishing schoolwork can be helpful, Dr. Narasimhan adds.

Related reading: How to tame teenage acne.

Help your teen find activities they enjoy

Setting time limits and physically placing phones elsewhere can be helpful. But limits on social media shouldn’t all be about restriction, says Dr. Narasimhan.

Brainstorm together about what you can add to their life. What other activities could help them beat boredom and form a new relationship with their device?

One of the best ways to help them is to take on this challenge, too. “Doing things as a family, like outdoor activities, can help young people develop healthier habits,” notes Dr. Narasimhan.

Think about how you can model good social media behavior for them. If you see those same red flags in your own behavior — not engaging with friends, comparing yourself poorly to others and feeling irritable more often — it’s helpful to look at the effects of social media on your mental health, too.

“Having a family schedule that allows everyone 15 to 30 minutes of social media use, for example, can be helpful for keeping each other accountable,” Dr. Narasimhan says. Adding fun activities into the day to replace that scrolling time can steer everyone toward better, healthier habits.

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Additional sources
Survey on social media use in teens:
Pew Research Center
Study on social media use and depression: JAMA Psychiatry (2019). “Associations between time spent using social media and internalizing and externalizing problems among US youth”
Study on how social media use makes teens feel: Scientific Reports (2020). “The effect of social media on well-being differs from adolescent to adolescent”