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Social Media and Mental Health

Four ways parents can help address emotional issues while sheltering in place and beyond.

Schools around the country are closed until further notice as doctors, scientists, and the government grapple with how to control the spread of COVID-19. This has left many kids to their own devices, literally, with no social plans, sports, classes, or structure. In one respect, we are lucky to have the option of tech for distance learning and connecting with friends. But overconsumption can take a toll on our mental health, especially for teens vulnerable to feelings of depression and anxiety during this unsettling time.

“As kids and adults, it is hard enough to deal with change, but to deal with uncertainty—that is exceptionally challenging,” says Dr. Delaney Ruston, Seattle-based physician and creator of the award-winning film Screenagers, and the film’s sequel Screenagers: Next Chapter, which explores the issue of screen time and mental health through the lens of Dr. Ruston’s daughter, who suffers from depression.

The Royal Society for Public Health in England revealed that 3 of the 4 most popular social media platforms had a net negative effect on the mental well-being of young adults aged 14 to 24. Several studies have found that the link depends on how often kids are on social media. One U.S. study found that occasional users of social media are almost three times less likely to be depressed than heavy users. Another study in Canada found that kids grades 7-12 who used social media more than 2 hours a day are much more likely to rate their mental health as ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ compared with moderate users.

As we head into Mental Health Awareness Month this May, we talked with Dr. Ruston about the role parents can play to ease the impact of social media on our kids’ mental health. “In the film, it becomes painfully obvious that parents know little about how to handle a child’s depression,” says Dr. Ruston. “As a physician, I really didn’t know how to handle it well.” She set out to find a solution through extensive research and came up with ways to help families navigate the downside of social media.

Have short, weekly conversations. When Dr. Ruston asked a group of teens how many of them feel comfortable talking to their parents about anything that was impacting them in a negative way emotionally, few hands went up. “That’s why I’m a big advocate for short, weekly conversations that are calm for kids to build trust in us and realize there are going to be things that are emotionally challenging that happen on screens and that we are going to want them to come to us,” she says. One key thing is to let kids talk out their problems rather than try to solve them yourself. “When parents come in and offer solutions, they experience it as us taking away their control. So instead, I’ve come to ask my daughter the question ‘what have you thought of as a solution?’ or ‘let me know if I can help problem-solve.”

Encourage them to curate their online experiences. Research shows that teens who experience emotionally hard times are susceptible to the downside of social media. They’re more likely to feel excluded when on social media or more likely to feel bad if no one comments on their post, says Dr. Ruston. “As parents we want to help our teens to become more mindful of what are the things on screens that are promoting their emotional well-being, what are things that are not and how can they curate their experiences so they’re not as much exposed,” says Dr. Ruston.

Dr. Ruston suggests questions in her Tech Talk Tuesdays blog that parents can ask their kids to bring awareness to the online experiences that might be impacting them negatively:

  1. What are some of the positives of being on social media for you personally? Can you give an example of getting social support during a challenging time?

  2. Which platform makes you feel anxious or sad at times and why?

Create healthy offline opportunities. It’s easy for tweens and teens to laze away the days while glued to their devices, especially while sheltering in place, but giving your child structure and building a daily routine with outdoor and offline activities can help enrich their days and make them feel more balanced emotionally. “Healthy offline experiences are like a vaccine for feeling alone that can happen as part of adolescence,” says Dr. Ruston. Need ideas? Check out Circle’s 60 Simple Ideas for Bringing Family Together.

Reach out to your village. When Dr. Ruston’s daughter Tessa was experiencing depression, her mom became her biggest advocate. Dr. Ruston reached out to friends who could engage her daughter in activities she enjoys, like babysitting. She suggests, for example, if your child plays video games but used to love sports to reach out to their coach. “When things are not going well there are little nudges that an engaged parent can do that can be helpful,” she adds. That is, find the people in your community who can check in on your child, even in times when they can’t meet with them IRL, and find the activities that bring them joy offline so they’re less impacted by the world of social media.

Want to create a healthy routine around devices? Learn more about how Circle can help.


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