Social Media Isn’t Play — It’s a Wellness Risk for Our Tweens

Social media is a way for our tweens to connect with friends, but it's also increasing the cases of anxiety, depression & self-harm being reported.

It’s a fact — our teens, especially girls, are now on social media constantly and it’s affecting their mental health.

The Atlantic’s article, “The Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls” is a great overview of how the statistics of social media’s effect on mental wellness has shifted over the past 15 years, and the news isn’t good. It’s just one example of why it’s so important that we are having conversations with our teens about navigating social media and being able to determine when the time we spend scrolling online starts being detrimental to our physical and mental wellness.

In fact, the rates of hospital admission for self-harm doubled for girls ages 10 to 14 from 2010 to 2014, and rates of anxiety and depression have followed suit.

While some may argue that social media has allowed for more connection for teens, especially during the past two years, it’s important to remember that the relationships and conversations that happen online — through posts and chat — do not replace the benefits of spending time with friends in real life.

Instead of facilitating beneficial play and authentic connection, apps like Instagram and Snap Chat are encouraging our teens to mask up and present a version of themselves that is often not connected with their emerging identity. In a sense, spending time on social media, especially in the middle school years when teens are just beginning to explore their identity and personal values, could be extremely detrimental to their psychosocial development.

“Improvements in technology generally help friends connect, but the move onto social-media platforms also made it easier — indeed, almost obligatory — for users to perform for one another.

Public performance is risky. Private conversation is far more playful. A bad joke or poorly chosen word among friends elicits groans, or perhaps a rebuke and a chance to apologize. Getting repeated feedback in a low-stakes environment is one of the main ways that play builds social skills, physical skills, and the ability to properly judge risk. Play also strengthens friendships.”

One of the Pillars of Play that I teach teens is social connection. The keyword there is “connection”. The conversations that are happening on social media are not true connections, but rather a platform for people to show the versions of themselves as they wish to be seen. It’s a way of perpetuating the perfectionism myth, instead of cultivating the authentic conversations and relationships that our teens need.

These conversations rarely happen in real-time, and the images associated with the words are filtered, photoshopped, staged, and presented in a way to make others jealous and to elicit attention to the poster. If a comment is made that is outside of the vision the poster is hoping to create, it can easily be deleted. Thus, continuing the illusion of perfection.

However, the degrading and bullying comments are still being made via instant messenger, and unlike hurtful conversations in real life, the receiver of the negativity cannot escape. Even turning off the phone only delays the inevitable as the comments simply lay in wait until she returns. The only way to truly escape is to delete the online presence.

“When girls started spending hours each day on Instagram, they lost many of the benefits of play. (Boys lost less, and may even have gained, when they took up multiplayer fantasy games, especially those that put them into teams.)"

The research tells us that the benefits of play don’t stop when a child enters middle school. In fact, it’s not recommended that teenagers continue to engage in play, both in and out of the classroom, as it builds creativity and social skills, and allows students to “practice” being an adult. Play helps teens start leaning into their identity and being comfortable with who they are, and it’s often social in nature.

In fact, many of the benefits of play for teens are the same social-emotional skills (SEL) that educators are being asked to bring back to the classroom. Again, these lessons tend to be more predominant in elementary classrooms, but SEL is needed all the way through secondary school. Allowing educators to shift to more experiential and project-based lessons is an easy way to integrate these SEL skills into the secondary curriculum because it naturally brings in the components of exploration and group collaboration as a piece of the learning process. These types of lessons can also be transferred to remote and online learning where students need to work synchronously at times in order to complete the project. They have that real-time ability to work through disagreements and find solutions together, instead of simply through passive asynchronous messages.

The same is true outside of the classroom. While some of this type of engagement can happen online, we know the best way to nurture these connection and empathy traits are through face-to-face interactions. In fact, the shift from independent play to more adult-organized play and online interactions is the main reason for the push for SEL focus in schools — our kids have forgotten how to interact with one another. 

“When girls started spending hours each day on Instagram, they lost many of the benefits of play. (Boys lost less, and may even have gained, when they took up multiplayer fantasy games, especially those that put them into teams.)"

While there is a benefit to social media for teens, the time they spend on apps like Instagram and Snap Chat is something that needs to be monitored, just as some of the other influences our teens' wellness.

Just as we teach our teens about toxic food, drugs, and risky behaviors, health programs need to teach teens about toxic online relationships and habits. Many current public school health curriculums touch on safety online and cyberbullying, but none that I’ve seen have dived into the health risks of engaging in social media. We are not lumping its use into the abuse and addiction categories that it probably should be linked to. In the age of online school and remote professions, more education about building those true social connections must start taking priority.

Schools aren’t the only ones responsible for this education, and parents can play an integral role in this area by having honest conversations with their teens as well as setting boundaries on social media use.

  • Delay entry to apps like Instagram and other social media until high school 
  • Monitor and restrict your child’s online activity. You should have access to their accounts and phone
  • Explain why you’re putting boundaries in place 
  • Point out inconsistencies in the images posted on social media and real life 
  • Stay up-to-date on what’s happening online — the challenges, the gossip, etc. 
  • Be a person your tween can come to if they are being bullied online (more common for girls) 
  • Be on the lookout for red flags that could indicate mental health challenges — anxiety, depression, self-harm (physical, eating disorders, etc)

We all want our teens to belong.

We don’t want to keep them from the technology and “fun” that their friends are engaging in, but just as our parents may have kept up back from late curfews and high school parties when we were in middle school, now we have to do similar protection for our kids. We hated our parents for it at the time — so unfair!! But was your life truly ruined? As much as I hated middle school and the social agony it brought me, I can honestly say that the boundaries that my parents set around my social circle and the activities that I could and couldn’t participate in were not the issues.

Every generation has a shift in how their social relationships are developing. Bullying is nothing new. Interacting online through video games and role-playing is nothing new. Media presenting unrealistic images for teen girls to aspire to is nothing new. But there has been a shift in how our teens are engaging in these conversations that have been made, and we as parents and educators need to step up. We need to be more knowledgeable about their experiences to help them navigate through this part of their life journey and come out on the other end in one piece.

The process begins with having conversations with our teens, both in and out of school, and setting boundaries. When in doubt, reach out to a mental health professional and consider a counselor or coach for your teen. Sometimes the education is best received from an outside party — even though it’s what you have been saying all along!

Categories: identity, mental health, parenting, social connection, teens, wellness


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