Helping Teens Make Healthy Social Media Connections

Social media has a huge impact on adolescents and their mental health. We have all heard it before, too much screen time is bad for our kids. Too much exposure to social media can damage adolescent relationships and negatively impact their mental health and overall wellbeing.

So while intellectually we know that we need to do something about it and stay on top of what they are on, how often they are on, at what time of the day etc., in reality it is not that easy. Once they are on their phone it can be really hard to control and monitor their activity without getting heavy handed with rules, or going “cold turkey”.

So What Can We Do?

First be clear about WHY we have to help our young people make healthy social media relationships. Teens are hardwired for socialisation, and social media makes socialising easy and immediate. This be of real benefit if the young person finds socialising hard as this is a place that they can ‘hang out’ and fit in. It can also be helpful if the young person suffers with any form of anxiety or has specific challenges because they can find support online. However, the downside is that too much time spent scrolling through social media sites can also create symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.

Here are some of the ways in which social media can have a negative effect:

* We all want to be liked: but focusing too much on gaining ‘LIKES’ on social media can cause teens to do and say things to get likes that can be very damaging ‘in real life’. They might change their appearance, agree to and engage in negative behaviours, accept risky social media challenges or agree to meet up with someone they have connected with online.

* Cyberbullying: Cyberbullying is associated with depression, anxiety, and an elevated risk of suicidal thoughts.

* Making comparisons: It’s very difficult to avoid making comparisons with what they see on social media where everyone only shares their highlights and ‘looking their best’. Seeing everyone else appearing SO happy, beautiful, popular, successful etc. can have a huge knock on effect on a teen’s self esteem and can lead to long lasting health issues.

* Lack of REAL friends, having too many virtual or “FAKE” friends: teens can connect with thousands of people on social media, but most of them are not REAL friends. This can be unsafe because suddenly they are exposed to a huge audience of strangers. At the same time the young person might get confused about what is actually REAL and what is not with regards to real friendships and end up missing out on some amazing real life connections. Additionally, there is no privacy on social media.

* Spending more time online than with real people: Social skills require daily practice, even for teens. We are not born with social interaction skills; they are something we learn by being with people in a social environment. It’s difficult to learn empathy and compassion (our best weapons in the war on bullying) when we spend more time “engaging” online than in person. Human connection is a powerful thing and builds social skills that last a lifetime.

But here is the good news, there’s a happy medium in there somewhere!

1. Keep communication channels open and TALK: The key to helping teens learn to balance social media with real life friendships is to have honest communications with them. You need to show your teen that you are there to support them, not to judge or lecture. It’s also important to walk the walk. Ask your teens to come up with their top 3 values and ask them how it matches up with their online behaviour. And ask yourself, does your daily behaviour match your own personal values?

2. Connect before Correct: tweens and teens can be so irritating (I have 3 myself so I know first-hand!) but try to set aside time EVERY DAY where you can be together, without battles or correcting. Just to BE, where you have a calm and relaxed time and connect with your teen. Maybe sit and chat, have a tea together, watch some TV, go for a walk etc.

3. Don’t tell or ask – but agree: no one likes to be told what to do or what NOT to do. If this is the way the conversation goes they are much more likely to go and do the opposite, or just do it anyway. Sit down with your teen, have an open conversation about your worries, discuss together what a plan might look like, what they think will work etc. And write it down!

4. Accept that it is part of their life and it will be hard to change habits: It can be hard for us to understand their ‘attachment’ relationship to their phones. But they have been brought up with tech and social media and it is a HUGE part of their lives. So come from a place of, ‘I understand that this is important for you’, and maybe try

to be part of it by asking them to teach you, connect with you, ask them questions about how it works etc.

5. Signs that your teen might be suffering from social media: Not all teens make unhealthy social media relationships but if you start seeing major changes in your teen it’s time to get active or ask for help. Look out for mood changes, changes to sleep and eating patterns, or if they become introvert, silent, or aggressive.

6. Role model: have a think about your own relationship to your phone, laptop, social media etc. Act and behave the way you want your teen to. It is so easy to be on the phone while chatting, during dinner, while watching a movie – but put it aside when your teen is with you! Why not try to take some ‘tech free’ days, or you might try a few hours in the day when as a family you all agree to be tech free.

7. Have a safe place to go to: as a teen, it can be really difficult to speak to Mum and Dad and fully open up, or even to take advice. Try to find someone they can go to if they feel they need some support or advice: mentors, counsellors, coaches, family friends, relatives. Agree who this person is in advance, otherwise in a moment of stress they might panic and end up making an unwise choice.

8. Control vs In Charge: A lot of parents say that they don’t want to put parenting controls on their teen’s phone, nor ban them from using social media, or take away their phones, know their passwords etc. as they feel it violates their freedom. But if something is wrong always go for SAFETY FIRST. You don’t want to look back and say, ‘I saw the signs and did nothing’. It is our job as parents to teach our kids and to keep them safe. This is you being IN CHARGE, not in control.

My last tip to you is to ‘parent from your long term goal’. Make sure you can look back and think. ‘yes I did the right thing, it was hard but I did it’.

I wish you well on your parenting journey