We all know that teenagers are continuously tied to their smartphones. Their need for connection to their peers above all else has been well-documented, and these days, their phones are how they keep abreast of every thought and action of their friends– both IRL and online.
We know that when teenagers (or anyone, for that matter!) get a “ping”, their brain lights up similarly to the way it does when they see loved ones or when they win money. It’s compelling– we’ve known about the power of this type of conditioning since the 1890’s when Pavlov famously trained his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. (ping!)
When your teenager hears the ping of an incoming message, they are metaphorically “salivating” for the social connection that is their deepest desire.
Smartphones can be used for many things: texting, gaming, searching the internet– but one of the most popular ways your teenager uses their smart phone is to stay connected on social media sites like Instagram and Snapchat.
As parents, we are often frustrated by this behavior. It can’t be good for our teenagers to be tied to their phones all day and night, can it?
The Royal Society for Public Health in the UK did a study of almost 1500 young people and came to the conclusion that Social Media use is linked to increased rates of anxiety, depression and poor sleep.
Of all the social media studied, Instagram and Snapchat had the worst effect on mental health.
YouTube was the only social medium they studied that had a net positive effect, leading to better “self-expression, self-awareness and understanding of other people’s health experiences”. Even YouTube, though, had a negative effect on people’s overall sleep.
So, given that our teenagers are undoubtedly going to use social media, what can we do to teach them about the healthiest ways to use Instagram and other media and apps on their phones?
What can we, ourselves, do to mitigate the negative effects of spending time on Instagram or Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest?
The following tips are for parents to practice first on themselves, regarding their own use of social media. Once you have put one or more of these into practice, share it with your teenager. Lead by doing.
1. Be Aware of the Difference Between “Aspirational” and “Inspirational”.
Following aspirational sites, like those for fitness or travel or healthy cooking, can seem like a good idea to inspire us to engage in activities we might not otherwise know about or do.
It is important, however, to be aware of how these sites actually make you feel. When you are done looking at all the photos from your favorite fitness guru, do you feel energized to go for a run or a yoga class, or do you feel despondent that your body is so different from theirs?
Sometimes our reaction to the very same site will be completely different on different days, depending on our mood.
The key is to be aware of your feelings.
On days when you are feeling blue, or low energy, stay away from the sites that will prompt you to compare yourself to some “successful” person posting about their latest “win”.
On those “low” days, look at sites that you find inspirational. Maybe they have cute photos or videos, or maybe they are stories of triumph over adversity that make you feel a warm connection. Maybe it’s a site with inspirational sayings, or beautiful photos of nature.
Follow a few of these “cute puppy” sites so you have them ready to scroll through when you are feeling blue and tempted to look at the photos of your friend’s latest dream vacation.
As far as your teenager goes, the more you can help them identify how they are feeling when using different kinds of social media, the more aware they will become about how to match social media to their moods. Also feel free to share with them your own experiences where following certain people or groups on social media made a difference in your mood one way or another.
This can be a slow process, but helping your teenager learn to identify their moods beyond just “bad” and “good” is one of the most worthwhile endeavors as a parent when it comes to long-term mental health.
2. Timing is everything!
It can be quite helpful to set a timer when you first go on social media. You will be surprised how quickly an hour can zoom by when you are down the social media rabbit hole…
Try to be aware of the times of day you are most liable to “zone out” on social media. Maybe you are able to just check your Facebook for a quick 10 minutes in the morning before work, or driving the kids to school, but in the evening your mind easily wanders around the internet for hours.
It is especially important to set a timer for social media browsing in the evening. Because sleep.
There are apps that can even do this for you. Check out my blog post on spending less time on social media for more suggestions.
You may not be able to make much of a difference in how much time your teenager spends on social media, but if you can at least make them aware of the different times of day where they are energized or brought down by social media, that will be valuable information that they can put to use in their more reasonable moments.
You will be surprised, five or ten years later, when the things you are teaching them now, suddenly pop up into their brain for them to use as needed. The good news is that when this happens, they are usually mature enough to finally appreciate how you were trying to help them. (This likely will not happen while they are still teenagers!)
3. Positive Uses Of Social Media and Smart Phones
One conclusion of the British study mentioned above was that YouTube can have a positive effect on mental health. (Beware of its sleep-stealing ability, even so!) YouTube can be instructional and, for those of us that have our own YouTube channel, a good method of self-expression.
Ask your teenager to show you some of their favorite YouTube videos, and share some of your favorites with them as well. Ask your teenager if they have their own channel. You may be surprised to find that they have one and didn’t tell you about it.
Many teenagers use their phone to escape the pressure of communicating when they are intimidated or overwhelmed by a group of their peers.
You can teach your teenager about some of the ways they can use their phones to self-soothe when they are in these uncomfortable social situations. One of the best ways calm down using your phone is to watch a “breathing gif” that guides you through slow, deep breaths.
There are many meditation apps that will do this for you as well. The meditation app Calm has a breathing gif where you can adjust the ratio of in breath, out breath, and the pause in between, all set to calming tones in the background.
Sometimes a teenager will want to watch something calming that is not so obvious to any of their friends who might grab their phone (a common occurrence in teen world!) There is a beautiful and mesmerizing kaleidoscope video that serves this purpose quite well. For some people it could be stimulating, but for most people it will be calming. Encourage your teenager to experiment with different gifs and videos.
There is an excellent post on themighty.com that lists some of these and many other ideas for ways to use your phone to calm down that don’t include social media.
Snapchat, Instagram, and other social media may be an unavoidable part of your teenager’s life. They are often a part of our lives as parents, as well! We can use these tools to our advantage If we stay mindful of the effect they are having on us.
In the end, we need to stay aware of the feelings that we are having when we use different social media, at different times of day, when we are in different moods. Social media, properly used, can make us laugh when we are down, give us a boost when we are low on energy, and calm us when we are anxious.
Should you let your teenager use Instagram? You probably don’t really have much choice.
If you can get your teenagers to try the suggestions listed above, they will certainly see their benefit. You may have trouble convincing them not to stay up late, or not to follow all their friends’ happy (and unrealistic) posts, but if they can see the ways that social media and phone apps can help them with mood regulation, they will probably want to implement these ideas at some point.
Make sure your teenager has these tools available when they need them– on a day when they are feeling down, or in a situation when they are feeling overwhelmed. Teach your teenager that social media is not just social, but can also help them regulate their mood, and no one else needs to know!
This is Part 4 of a 4 Part Back-To-School Series. Click here for Part 1 – How Do I Get My Teenager To Do Their Homework? Click here for Part 2 – How Do I Get My Teenager To Get Up In The Morning? Click here for Part 3 – How Do I Get My Teenager To Talk To Me?
More Questions About Your Teenager? Let's Chat.
I you have more questions about social media and teenagers, or would like some help with specific questions or problems about your teenager, please feel free to call me at 323-999-1537, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will be happy to help you find resources for your specific situation, and/or a therapist in your area. I want you and your teenager to feel better and live your best life!