Tween and teen mental health was declining even before the pandemic, but anxiety, depression and hopelessness have skyrocketed since 2020. In the past year alone, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy highlighted the youth mental health crisis, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health, and the CDC’s deputy director warned that the young are crying out for help.
Girls are faring worse than boys, reporting higher rates of anxiety, depression, body image issues, self-harm and addiction. There are many biological and social reasons for this gender discrepancy, but one of the most important is girls’ greater use of social media. While boys play video games, girls connect via Snapchat, WhatsApp, TikTok and Instagram. Unfortunately, spending time on these platforms, especially when done passively, is related to negative psychological consequences.
Social media seem to have a more detrimental effect on tween and teen girls’ mental health compared to boys or females of other age. Adolescence heightens girls’ self-consciousness about their developing bodies and increases their anxiety about fitting in and belonging – all of which are dramatically amplified via social media. Add to that social media-related lack of sleep and online bullying, and you have a perfect storm.
Social media is particularly harmful to girls who are already depressed or feeling bad about themselves. For example, a 2017 study found that adolescents’ depressed mood predicted more frequent Instagram posting, and 2019 research showed that depressive symptoms led to more social media use among teen girls. So, girls struggling with mental health problems tend to use more social media, which in turn further worsens their mental health.
Try to delay social media use until high school
When I talk to parents of girls in my work as a clinical psychologist, they are surprised by my suggestion to resist giving smart phones – where social media typically is accessed – to their daughters until about age 14. Parents are worried about girls’ safety and not fitting in socially when most tweens have phones. Although these are valid concerns, they should be weighed against the potential negative effects of unrestricted social media use in middle school.
For safety, girls could carry flip phones. And although there are social repercussions for delaying social media use, consider the results of a major 2022 study that showed middle school girls to be especially psychologically vulnerable to social media’s pernicious effects. Research with 84,000 people between 10 and 80 found that tween girls’ (11-13) social media use was linked to lower life satisfaction more strongly than for any other demographic group.
The online organization Wait Until 8th offers useful strategies for delaying social media access. Your best bet is to start an ongoing conversation with your daughter before middle school and to engage with other parents in her friend group to take a collective stance.
Create a family media plan
Designing a media plan should involve all members of the family to have the greatest effect possible; strive to do this over a family meal or an evening gathering. The two main aspects of the plan are screen-time limits and tech-free zones. For example, a family might decide that they will shut down internet access after 10 p.m. each night or that everyone will install a time-tracking app on their devices and commit to not using social media more than an hour a day. A family also could declare that there will be no tech use while hanging out on the porch at home or when spending a weekend away together.
The plan works best when parents can abide by the same rules as their children and thus model the behavior. Of course, that is not always possible. I encourage you to at least set an example by committing to some limits on your screen time and/or social media use. Be creative in how you disable access by using available apps or in-device features, for example. American Academy of Pediatrics’ site can give you some ideas.
Listen, ask questions and share
Throughout your discussions with your tween and teen daughters, be prepared with some questions or prompts, and then listen. Patience goes a long way as you observe and listen in an accepting, supportive and warm way.
- Be curious about your daughter’s goals for engaging with different social media, her opinions about different posts and her emotions before and after scrolling or posting.
- Ask her whether she feels she can be true to herself online and what she thinks about others’ online portrayals of themselves.
- Encourage her to be mindful as she uses social media – noticing when and why she logs in, how long she stays there, whose feeds make her feel bad about herself versus uplifting her and teaching her something new, and so on. Furthermore, support her in blocking or muting accounts that affect her negatively.
- Discuss online advertising, the frequent use of filters to enhance images and the profit motive behind all social media companies.
- Appeal to your daughter’s empathy and compassion by together considering how social media contact can be harmful for some people or populations she may care deeply about.
- Finally, be humble and vulnerable, honestly sharing how you, too, fall prey to sometimes seeing the highly curated online posts as reflections of reality. A 2017 study found that bolstering teens’ awareness of the unrealistic nature of social media can be a powerful protective factor.
Discuss online harassment and cyberbullying
A 2019 article in the medical journal Lancet Child & Adolescent Health reported that cyberbullying accounted for a significant portion of the link between social media use and girls’ negative mental health outcomes. Have conversations about the harmful language or behavior online after educating yourself on reputable sites like StopBullying.gov. Role-play how your daughter would handle it if someone posted things about her that were not true.
Make sure that your children feel comfortable coming to you with any concerns or problems they encounter online. And always be mindful of significant changes in your tween’s or teen’s mood or behavior – and do not hesitate to inquire about it.
Be mindful of social media replacing other activities
It appears that high social media use affects psychological wellbeing negatively partly because it reduces the time girls spend sleeping, exercising and socializing in person. Therefore, a focus on increasing these (mental) health-promoting behaviors has the potential to help your daughters thrive. Whether you institute phone-free time for an hour or two each evening or encourage your daughters to play sports, you will promote less social media use and better mental health.