Parents and professionals worry about the time spent online, about the content that is seen by teenagers, and about the possible temptations that abound in the online world. The striking thing is that this anxiety is not experienced in the same way by young people themselves. By and large they are aware of the risks in the online world and feel that they are able to manage them.
There is no doubt that today social media is seen by adults as representing a major problem for young people.
One of the major worries for adults has to do with possible mental health problems associated with the use of social media. It does appear to be the case that, certainly among teenage girls, mental health problems such as depression are on the rise. In addition those who demonstrate the most extensive use of social media do appear to have higher levels of depression and other problems. However we are far from being able to demonstrate a direct link showing cause and effect. It may just be that other factors, such as the family environment for example, are affecting both social media use and mental health.
One important possibility is that vulnerable teenagers may find that the use of social media is a critical outlet for support. These individuals may be isolated, they may have to deal with difficult family situations, or they may have experienced trauma of one sort or another. For these young people the internet may provide an outlet, or a safe place to go for support. The online world may provide a way of sharing experiences with others who are facing similar adversity.
A family digital strategy
Any approach by parents to the use of social media by young people has to involve the whole family. Parents are role models, and it is no use making rules (such as no phones at mealtimes) if the parents do not respect the rules themselves. It can be extremely helpful if the family as a whole works out some rules that everyone can get behind. Children and teenagers are more likely to accept structures that have been negotiated than ones that have been imposed.
Parents will make more progress if they accept that the online world has many opportunities to offer, and if they work with their children to manage it sensibly. Where adults have worries about mental health, monitoring and supervision can play a key role. The more aware parents are of how the online world is being used, the more likely they are to be able to pick up warning signs. Parents do have a part to play. They should be alert, and if they do have anxieties about their teenager, they should not be afraid to offer help and support.
It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at email@example.com or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker.
Watch our video on the pros and cons of social media
Written by Dr John Coleman, Family Lives Trustee
This page was updated on October 2021