5 Signs Your Child’s Social Media Habit Has Turned Toxic (& What You Can Do About It, According to Experts)
Social media can be the most wonderful (and stressful) place.
It’s where millions of people go to find community and feel connected, and yet, studies have shown that the increased use of social media often leaves folks feeling even more isolated. It’s where budding young stars can build their following and pursue their passions, and yet, there’s the risk of online bullying and negativity.
And the repercussions, for kids, are actually quite tangible. According to a 2015 study from the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, adolescents who use social media for social comparison and feedback-seeking are more likely to have depressive symptoms, and research from a 2016 study in the Journal of Adolescence linked higher levels of social media for kids with poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem and increased anxiety.
The craziest part? These systems are actually designed to manipulate people’s emotions and keep them addicted.
“They are legitimately exploiting the very nature of what makes us human,” says Jessica Fortunato, Psy.D, a therapist and specialist in technology addictions. “It’s kind of like a grand experiment happening and we’re all guinea pigs in this, and people who suffer the most are the youth.”
But what can parents do to help? And what signs can they look out for when it comes to toxic social media habits? Read on for more details on how to recognize these signs and how to respond, according to the experts.
1. Your kids only get excited about digital accomplishments
To be fair, celebrating a few digital accomplishments can be a good thing—especially if your child is using it as a tool to do good. (That online petition to clean up the park is definitely worth bragging about.) But if all of their celebrations revolve around the digital world (like the number of likes that they get on every selfie), then it could be a sign that they value their digital experiences more than their real-life ones.
Dr. Lynda Ulrich, motivational speaker and author of Happiness is an Option, told us that paying attention to what kids post on social media can offer a lot of insight on the things they care most about. She explained, “What are they celebrating? And what are they sharing? Look at that landscape and say, is this the kid I’m raising? Is this kid going to have a full range of experiences ahead of them, or are they going to be limited by this limited view of a life that they’re living? Look at what your kids are doing on social media, see what they’re celebrating themselves. Pay attention to what they pay attention to.”
According to the author, if they’re sharing a variety of meaningful, real-life moments, then this indicates an “active, full, well-rounded life.” But if you notice that your child’s feed is filled with selfies and content from the digital world, then it’s time to intervene.
2. They play the comparison game (a lot)
Even as adults, we fall into the comparison trap on social media, and this can wreak havoc on our self-esteem and mental health. Now, imagine how much more dangerous it is for children who are still developing and trying to figure out who they are. If they’re constantly trying to measure up to their seemingly “perfect” peers online, then this could indicate low self-esteem.
Dr. Fortunato explained, “Two of the key challenges for adolescents are identity development and developing that capacity for critical thinking, developing empathy and cultivating intimate relationships, really finding who they are. If they're immersed in this public forum that’s based on perfectionistic, ideological portraits of ourselves, with all the bells and whistles and filters and getting it just so, and we become reliant on looking outside of ourselves for information and confirmation about who we are, that's a painful and losing battle.”
According to data revealed in Netflix’s documentary, The Social Dilemma, child suicide rates have risen by up to 150 percent and self-harming among young girls (aged 10 to 14) has nearly tripled after they became exposed to social media, proving that it has taken a major toll on young kids' mental health. But as scary as this sounds, there is something that parents can do to help break this unhealthy cycle.
Dr. Ulrich said, “We can teach our kids to look at that perfect Facebook posting of some influencer and say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s so perfect. Is everybody really like that?’ It’s really important to teach your kids that you’ve got to have the whole context of something before you start comparing yourself to it. And social media is the worst place because there’s literally no context there.”
She continued, “Teach your kids to look at the deeper truth in the social media landscape. Teach them to look at what other people are celebrating and caring about.”
3. Their online image is very different from their real-life one
If a social-media savvy child is constantly comparing herself to others, then it’s very likely that she’s created an online image that barely reflects their own—and this could mean that she’s not too happy with her real, offline self either.
Dr. Fortutato explained, “The platform thing starts to get to this issue of the online self and the authentic self. The constructed and crafted self versus the real self. And that becomes a hot mess pretty quickly. For many, many young people, especially if they're not getting enough of those foundational skills and experiences.”
But how can parents help their kids develop these skills while also teaching them to embrace what makes them unique?
Dr. Fortunato suggests encouraging your kids to take a step back from social media and self-reflect. She said, “Kids need time to unplug. They need time for solitude, for quiet for reflection. We have to understand and go within to know, what do I think about this? How do I feel about this? Would I do that if I was in that position? Is that how I would solve the problem? [Outside validation and stimulation] are fed to us so readily that so much of our consumption is passive, it's reactive and not proactive.”
4. They’re eager to sacrifice real-life activities for time on social media
Perhaps you’ve noticed that your 12-year-old is scrolling through Instagram instead of participating in family game night. Or maybe your kid gets super irritated when their screen time gets cut short. But, before you brush them off as just kids being kids, you might want to consider how this affects their mental, emotional and social development.
Dr. Ulrich said, “What we’re actually learning, as far as useful life skills that are going to serve us our whole entire lives, comes from real experiences. And if a kid doesn’t seem like they’re having real life experiences, I don’t know what they’ll be left with when they really have to face real life.”
A common suggestion that we’ve all heard is to place strict limits on screen time, but according to Dr. Fortunato, this is easier said than done—and actually not very effective. She explained, “You know, [we’ll say], ‘That's bad. Get off your phone, just do the limit.’ That does not work. It does not work.”
Instead, she suggests educating kids about the pervasiveness of social media when they’re young. She said, “We need to start from really young and have the conversation. We need to understand the risks. And here’s a key [idea worth discussing]: What is healthy development? What exactly are those skills and how do children acquire them? And the final piece is then linking that back to how they do not get enough of that on tech, how these skills cannot be cultivated and nurtured online. They require real life, in person. The way we protect our kids is by helping them understand this.”
5. They’re anxious and depressed without their devices
How does your child react when they misplace their phone? Or better yet, what would they do if they had to spend an entire day without access to social media? If they suddenly lose all enthusiasm or they start sulk and complain, then it’s a sign that your kid is definitely addicted.
As a starting point for a discussion, Dr, Ulrich suggests watching The Social Dilemma with your children. She explained, “If you think your kid is old enough to have a phone, then they’re old enough to watch it. It’s so positive because the generation of kids we’re raising now are the first digital natives. They don’t know a reality without an online life and they are savvy there.”
However, if it’s gotten to a point where your child exhibits disturbing or problematic behavior (like full tantrums) when they’re separated from their phone, then it might be time to seek professional help.
“Decent kids get really lost in this, and then the child starts exhibiting really out of control behavior in response to having a device taken away from them,” Dr. Fortunato said. “This has a tremendous impact on the family. It really starts to break down and implode, and that is a tall order for any parent to try and navigate on their own. In that type of instance, professional intervention and support is needed.”
The practitioner also suggests visiting a professional who specializes in technology addiction. “There are treatment centers that are devoted to this, they’re generally geared toward gaming addiction. There’s a residential program out in Washington called reSTART, it’s a residential program for tech addiction and gaming, and there’s one in Hartford, Connecticut, The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction program. They have a lot of different programs with intensive treatment.”
Bottom line? Be intentional about monitoring your kids’ social media habits and aim to educate them about the risks as early as you possibly can. As Dr. Ulrich puts it, “Anything that’s addictive takes away our choices and limits our future. So right from the get go, if you teach your kids to really limit anything that’s addictive in their lives, then their future is just a landscape of limitless possibilities.”