Is your Child Addicted to Social Media?

Tips to help teens stay safe and find balance

By Laurie Bertke

In light of media coverage about the harmful effects that apps such as Instagram can have on young people, many parents are wondering how they can protect their kids. Is it okay for your child to use social media? If so, how can they do so safely?

Seeking guidance, we reached out to Dr. Caroline Fenkel at Charlie Health, the first-ever virtual mental health clinic for high-acuity patients. The clinic serves teens and young adults struggling with mental health and substance use disorders. Fenkel, a licensed clinical social worker, is its co-founder and chief clinical officer. She shared some warning signs to watch for as well as tips for helping your teen maintain balance in their digital lives. 

You have worked with youth and families for more than 13 years. What kind of changes have you seen in your teen clients with the rise of social media? 

With a lot of our teen and young adult patients, there’s a complicated relationship with social media. We’re seeing skyrocketing rates of youth anxiety, depression, and suicidality, but I wouldn’t necessarily (or directly) attribute this solely to the increase in social media use. Nonetheless, we know that social media has played a huge role in exacerbating what may have been benign mental health challenges. 

To give an example, someone might be looking for healthy recipes on Instagram. They already have underlying issues around body image, but Instagram picks up on the user’s interest in healthy eating and slowly takes them down a rabbit hole that can lead to posts promoting restrictive eating and ultimately facilitate the development of disordered eating or potentially more severe challenges. This is just one example, but it can manifest with almost any insecurity or seemingly benign inquiry. 

 Other negative effects range from increased feelings of loneliness and isolation, worsening sense of self-worth, addictive tendencies with the technology itself…all of the issues circulating in the news right now have been presenting clinically for years. 

That being said, there have also been positive effects with social media, especially in its ability to connect people during the toughest of lockdowns at the beginning of the pandemic. But of course, moderation is key.

Did it surprise you when news broke that Facebook’s own research showed its photo-and video-sharing app, Instagram, can be toxic for teenage girls? Why?

Definitely not a surprise to me, and I would assume that most who provide mental health services for adolescents would agree. It’s pretty obvious even when you scroll through your own Instagram feed — let alone the feed of an average teenager — that the platform is designed to promote an idealized version or curated sense of reality. But most of us aren’t actively thinking about that when we’re scrolling, especially younger people who follow influencers who have huge sway over their audiences. They’re bright and shiny and perfect and don’t usually disclose the murkier parts of their lives, so it makes sense that their followers would think that their own lives will never measure up. 

It’s dangerous and irresponsible for both the platforms and the influencers to continue to peddle this false narrative, especially around body image. There’s an incredible amount of pro-eating disorder content on Instagram that’s masked as wellness, fitness, etc. And it’s teaching young people that smaller is better; that altering your body is better than accepting and loving it for what it is. Lots of research found that rates of eating disorders increased in young girls during the pandemic, and I absolutely think that’s because there was more time to scroll and compare. 

What guidelines would you offer to help teens use social media safely?

The first step is awareness. Be aware of when and how much you’re on social media. Maybe you don’t need to look at your Instagram as soon as you wake up or watch that new YouTube vlog right before you go to bed. Maybe set aside a few hours a day where you’re not on Snapchat and go for a walk or read or cook or…anything! 

Also, curate your feed. Don’t follow people who make you feel bad about yourself or your life. Always block and report any bullying (which, yes, includes passive-aggressive commenting and anonymous posting). Your priority is your mental health, so making sure you have a social media atmosphere that is positive for your outlook— and maybe even teaches you something— can make a huge difference.

What are some warning signs of digital addiction in youth?

Broadly speaking, the emotional relationship to devices, social media, gaming, etc. is what’s most important to pay attention to. The time spent is an obvious thing to note, but it’s not always the best way to determine whether or not a young person has a disordered relationship with technology. Like all addiction, it exists on a spectrum and varies from person to person. But when the relationship to Instagram or the Xbox or the phone begins to impact other relationships, that’s when it becomes important to reevaluate its use. This can look like lower self-esteem, marked decrease in participation in activities they used to enjoy, increased feelings of loneliness or disconnection, higher irritability or anger than usual, disrupted sleep patterns, and disproportionate reactions (sobbing, screaming, etc.) when faced with the idea of losing access to the technology and/or platform.  

What are the risks of digital addiction, and how should parents respond if they are seeing these warning signs?

Living with a digital addiction can be thought of through the lens of other addictions: it chips away at the person’s identity, it cuts them off from their relationships and the things they love, and it makes participating in a balanced life nearly impossible. For kids, the risks include lower grades in school, a higher likelihood of developing mental health disorders (or the worsening of preexisting ones), disrupted sleep (which plays a huge role in the development process, especially during the teenage years), loss of friendships…the list goes on. 

Parents should approach the situation with empathy, first and foremost. Remember: just because your child is spending a lot of time on their phone or device doesn’t mean they’re addicted (remember when you would spend hours on the landline with your best friend after school?). But if you suspect that the relationship with technology has begun to affect everyday functioning and mental health, try to sit your child down and start a conversation with them about it. Communication is key; be curious without making assumptions in your questions. It’s important for them to feel heard, validated, and safe.  

At what point should parents seek professional help for their child?

When the functionality of your child is being impacted by technology or social media, that’s when it’s time to seek professional help. If you’re not sure, seek help! Mental health professionals are here to guide and support you. It’s never too soon to ask for help.    

How can parents help their teens maintain a balanced and healthy relationship with digital media?

Encourage them to set boundaries. Model and demonstrate those same boundaries yourself with your own social media. For example, ensure mealtimes are device-free. Plenty of parents spend just as much time — if not more — on Facebook or on their work email. This isn’t just a young person’s problem. Lead by example and foster an environment that sets healthy boundaries with devices.

My child is about to get his/her first cell phone. What kind of ground rules can we set to help us avoid problems down the road?

I always advocate for anyone to emphasize moderation. Too much of anything can become dangerous. To set boundaries, I might suggest no cell phones while we’re engaging as a family (i.e. eating dinner or watching a movie or hiking, or anything along those lines). Encourage them to enjoy staying present in the moment and value quality time with loved ones.