It’s high time we have a national sit-down about social media.
You know that’s true, when, in today’s divided political landscape, leaders are working across the aisle to rein in popular platforms. Last month, over 40 states including Massachusetts sued Meta, accusing it of harming young people with addictive Facebook and Instagram features. That followed bipartisan legislation aimed at banning children younger than 13 from creating social media accounts.
We see the devastating impact such platforms have on mental health through our work with adolescents at a Massachusetts psychiatric hospital. We often hear parents blaming themselves for letting their children’s addictions go unchecked. We want you to know: To help your child, you don’t have to wait for a lawsuit to be resolved or an act of Congress.
Our patients’ understanding of happiness is warped by these platforms, which create the perception that everyone on social media is exuberantly happy. And when it seems like everyone else is happy and you know you are not, feelings of depression, diminished self-worth, and anxiety soon follow.
It surprised us to hear that most of the adolescents in our daily therapy group were using social media for double-digit hours each day, and that over half articulated a relationship between their mental health and the messaging they received through social media. To our greater surprise, all but one felt there was a need for some kind of external controls. They could not imagine decreasing their usage all by themselves.
We hear about parents whose instinct is to react in the moment — perhaps a bit too late and often out of frustration — with an authoritarian, all-or-nothing approach. Many want to take away their child’s device or install content trackers to see their every swipe.
Before taking drastic measures, we encourage parents to step back and work to resolve their feelings of guilt. Trust us when we say it’s not your fault. The explosive growth of social media was like a speeding train; there was no time to anticipate its power nor opportunity for a thoughtful response. The devices used to access these platforms were a Trojan horse, welcomed into our homes in the form of a telephone.
Become aware of your own relationship to your device. As your adolescent may point out, it’s not OK to preach one thing and do another. Try to develop an “observing ego” to notice your own behavior as objectively as possible. To take an example from our line of work, every time a therapist glances at a clock, it sends an important message to their client: I am not focusing on you. Next time, try catching yourself when you check a text during an interaction with your child. It sends that same implicit message.
Then try making some family rules. Engage your children in a discussion about reasonable rules that everyone — parents included — will abide by to manage social media use and increase family connection. It is incumbent on parents to include their kids in the planning: Adolescents, in particular, often need a sense of ownership to buy in to family rules.
Some examples include agreeing as a family that no one will use their device during dinner, or that devices stay on the kitchen counter overnight rather than in a bedroom, or maybe not using your device when watching a family movie (“Only one screen on at a time”). Remember, this needs to apply to everyone. With some thought and creativity, it is possible to implement effective and enforceable family rules without feeling like a dictator.
It’s also important to talk with your child about what they’re seeing on social media. Whereas many of today’s parents grew up reading the newspaper, listening to the radio, or watching cable news, most adolescents today receive information about important social issues through their devices. By being open-minded, you can be better informed about what they are consuming.
Instead of writing new platforms off, try to engage with your children with a genuine sense of curiosity. Ask them about what they’re learning from what they’re watching. For example, if a major news story breaks, ask what your child has learned about it.
Finally, look for opportunities with your adolescent to think about what is behind their reliance on a device. Many of the adolescents we’ve worked with struggle with anxiety and depression and tell us that social media is a convenient tool that can help avoid those feelings — and the dread of all adolescents: boredom. And it is OK to acknowledge that, at times, you also struggle to put your device down.
With our future trending toward a more virtual world, the stakes of better managing our relationship to social media have never been higher. Despite its benefits, it is important to acknowledge the unintended consequences this unfettered access to information is having on our young people. And the time to act is now: There won’t be a superhero to save our children at the end of this story — it will need to be you.
Robert J. Keane is a licensed clinical social worker, an assistant vice president at Walden Behavioral Care, and on the faculty of the Boston College School of Social Work, where he earned his doctorate. Kameron Mendes, a licensed mental health counselor, is a therapist at Renovated Wellness and a Ph.D. student in the school of social work at Simmons University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.