Posted on: January 22, 2020 at 6:43 pm
Last updated: June 4, 2020 at 8:33 am

Allison’s sixteen-year-old daughter, like any teen her age, experiences high school drama. When the mom from Overland Park, Kansas, discovered she was staying up late into the night texting and using social media, however, she became concerned. That concern eventually lead to her talking about our daughter’s nightly struggle.

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Allison and her husband decided it was best that their daughter’s phone be put in their room at night. This, of course, did not go over well with the teen, who sobbed with anger over the new rule. All of the young girl’s fears and insecurities came pouring out. The drama in her social circle, the social media comments she had to put up with, the sleepovers and parties she saw that she hadn’t been invited to, and most alarmingly, that she had been helping another classmate late at night who had been having suicidal thoughts.

Once everyone got used to the new routine (and Allison helped her daughter involve adults who could support her suicidal friend), their daughter began to get more sleep, be less irritable, and just simply be herself again [1].

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While the success of Allison’s efforts are beautiful and uplifting, it highlights a very important issue: what is all of this screen time and constant social connectedness doing to our children?

Screen Time and Your Teen’s Mental Health

If you’re worried about how screen time is affecting your teen, you’re not alone. In 2018, half of all parents surveyed stated that they were concerned that the amount of time their child spent on their phone was bad for their mental health [2].

They have a reason to feel this way. We know that too much screen time makes children (not just teens) moody, lazy, and inattentive, and can affect children as young as two years old.

2012 was the year when smartphones and tablets became so widespread among teenagers. Sadly, that is also the year we saw a surge in depression, anxiety, and suicide for that age group. Psychologist, Dr. Jean Twenge, has analyzed multiple sets of data and has concluded that American teenagers who spend more time online are more likely to have depression or come up with a suicidal plan [2].

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A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology found that nocturnal phone use (aka – phone use after your teen was supposed to go to bed) was associated with poor mental health, suicidal feelings, and self-injury for children in grade seven through grade twelve [3].

There have been multiple studies conducted that explore the association between Facebook Use and well-being, all of which have found that the more time people (adults and children alike) spend on the social platform, the less happy they are moment-to-moment, and the less satisfied overall they are with their lives [4,5]. Another study in Denmark found that even after just a one-week break from Facebook, participants experienced more positive emotions and reported higher overall satisfaction with their lives [6]. While this report focused specifically on Facebook, it is logical to assume that similar effects occur across all social media platforms.

So while we know that screen time and social media usage in general is negatively affecting our children’s mental health, what specifically is happening?

Your Teen is Feeling Lonely

It seems counterintuitive- no matter where they are or what they’re doing, your teen can stay connected with their peers through Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat 24/7. The problem is, this type of connectivity does not replace face-to-face interactions, and the use of social media has actually led teenagers to feel lonelier than ever before [7].

In fact, in 2015 48 percent more girls and 27 percent more boys reported feeling left out compared with 2010. This could be that because they have the ability to see what their friends and classmates are doing all the time, they know when they’re missing out on something [7].

As it turns out, the more time teenagers spend on their devices, the less time they spend engaging in face-to-face interactions with anyone – peers and parents included. Playing sports, going to parties, and simply just hanging out with friends is being replaced by social media, video games, and online browsing. So it’s not just that teens are feeling lonelier, they really are lonelier [8].  

“The number of teens who get together with their friends every day has been cut in half in just 15 years, with especially steep declines recently,” said Twenge [7].

Feeling isolated or lonely has a profound effect on your teenager. When you are lonely, your levels of the stress hormone cortisol increases dramatically, and the stress this puts on your body is the same as if you were under attack [9].

Loneliness, however, is a matter of perceived isolation. Some people can live fairly solitary lives without feeling lonely, while others can have a very rich social life and lonely all the time [9]. Heavy use of social media increases your child’s perceived loneliness since they always know what their peers are up to.

Your Teen is Becoming Increasingly Materialistic

Young people today are more likely than ever before to say that being wealthy is important to them [8].

“Teens who spend more time on social media are more likely to value individualistic attitudes and less likely to value community involvement,” writes Twenge [7].

Social media allows kids to get a more in-depth look into the lives of celebrities and rich people, so not surprisingly, heavy users of social media are more likely to believe that material objects, like new cars or expensive vacation homes, are important in life [7].

Materialism is linked to unhappiness, anxiety, and depression. American Psychologist Tim Kasser has researched this link extensively (he even wrote a book about it), and has shown that the more people think about acquiring things – whether that’s more stuff, more fame, or simply more money – the more likely they are to experience any or all three of those emotions [10].Spending more time on smartphones predicts materialism in teens, leaving them less likely to develop a meaningful set of values, which makes them feel anxious, depressed, and lonely [11].

Your Teen is Becoming Increasingly Insecure

The trap of self-comparison is nothing new: inequality and envy have been a part of our culture since humans came into existence. The problem is, today’s teens are comparing themselves to the wealthy and beautiful “influencers” that are monopolizing their social media feeds, feeding them the idea that the only people with value are those with wealth and status [7].

To make things worse, teenagers these days are living in a time of significantly greater economic inequality. To illustrate, in 2016 the net worth of the average upper-income family was 75 times higher than that of the average low-income family (the difference was only 28 times in 1983). This is the highest income disparity ever reported since this data started being reported in 1983 [12].

We inevitably end up comparing ourselves to the people we spend the most time thinking about, which for your socially-connected teenager is the rich and famous people they follow on Instagram. This comparison is completely sub-conscious, and is heightened following puberty, making your teenager particularly vulnerable [7].

What’s even worse than having a perceived “low” social status? Feeling like your status is being threatened. Teens, who are constantly watching what their peers are up to, are in a constant state of trying to defend their social status [7].

How Can You Help Your Teen?

The greatest predictor of a person’s happiness is the quality of their relationships [13]. A major review in 2010 found that “people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival [compared to] those with weaker social relationships.” [14].

Psychologists are referring here to real-life social connections, not the superficial ones your teens are engaging in on their smartphones. So what steps can you take to help your child spend less time on their phone, and more time developing real-life relationships?

Set guidelines and wean them off gradually. If your child is spending six hours each day in front of a screen, getting it down to three hours is a significant achievement. To do this, try setting time-of-day boundaries. No screens before school, at mealtimes, and at bedtime are good examples [15].

Be an example. If you’re going to set boundaries for your child’s cell phone use, you need to abide by these rules as well. 

Charge their phones in your room at night. For many teens the temptation to go on their phones late at night is just too great, so keeping them somewhere where they don’t have access to them will give your child a much-needed break.

Consider using parental controls. Some wireless carriers offer parental controls that allow you to set limits on your kids’ phones. If you find that they are having difficulty complying with your phone-use rules, this could be an option [16].

Tell them why. Often times, teenagers want to grow up, so talk to them like they’re adults. Explain to them why it’s important to set their phones down sometimes. They will be much more receptive to your rules when they understand the motivation behind them [17].

Plan some activities that don’t require phones. Give your teenager some fun things to do that takes them away from the screens. Invite their friends, get them outside. Providing them with opportunities to have face-to-face interactions will help them develop important social skills that their phones won’t [17].

Changing your teen’s phone habits will be tough. It’ll take time and will most likely be met with some resistance, but the end result will leave your child feeling happier and more confident in who they are.

The story of Allison and her daughter was sourced from START, a non-profit organization with the aim of helping families use tech with intention so that kids grow up captivated by life, not screens.

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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