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Last week, on May 23, the US Surgeon General issued an Advisory about social media and the potential harm to our children.
Is Social Media Safe?
The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, said:
“The most common question parents ask me is, ‘is social media safe for my kids’. The answer is that we don't have enough evidence to say it's safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health."
Mental Health National Emergency
The American Academy of Pediatrics, and other groups, have declared that our children's mental health is so poor that it constitutes a national emergency. This started with the advent of smart phones and social media.
Social Media Drives the Mental Health Crisis
The US Surgeon General went on to say:
"We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis – one that we must urgently address.”
Cell Phones Are Implicated
A study published in the Journal of Child Development found that cellphones often lead to sleep problems in teens. The resulting sleep deficiency leads to a cascade of problems including depression, anxiety and behavioral issues. Cell phones, and screens in general, produce blue light, and the blue light decreases melatonin production. Lower melatonin levels cause poor sleep. It is a self-reinforcing downward spiral: social media tempts teens to stay on social media when they should be sleeping, and the blue-light induced melatonin deficiency makes it harder to go to sleep anyway, so they might as well stay up all night doing social media.
Dr. Twenge in a paper published in Clinical Psychological Science, stated that increases in depression, suicide attempts and suicide appeared among teens throughout the United States, coinciding with the increased prevalence of cell phones.
This is confirmed by the Pew Research Center. They found that smartphone ownership among teens crossed the 50% threshold in late 2012 – right when teen depression and suicide began to increase. By 2015, 73% of teens had access to a smartphone.
More Screen Time = More Depression & Suicide
Not only did smartphone use and depression increase at the same time, but the amount of time spent online was linked to mental health issues in multiple studies. Teens that spent five or more hours a day online were 71% more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to report depression, suicide thoughts or plans, or actual suicide attempts. Suicide thoughts or plans rise significantly after two or more hours a day online.
Researchers asked if it was possible that cell phones/social media/screen time didn't actually cause depression and suicidality, but was just a sign of depression. Maybe depressed teens were more likely to spend time on social media?
Three studies refuted that possibility. Two of those studies followed teens over time. Both of those studies found that spending more time on social media led to unhappiness. However, unhappiness did NOT lead to more social media use. A third study randomly assigned some teens to give up Facebook for a week and the others to continue their usual use. Teens who avoided Facebook reported feeling less depressed at the end of the week.
Teen Suicide Rates at New High Levels
Suicide has now become the second-leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States, surpassing homicide deaths, which dropped to third on the list. Only accidents and unintentional injuries pose a larger threat than suicide to our teens. As discussed above, the rise in suicides correlates with the growth of social media.
What Can You Do To Protect Your Teens?
The Surgeon General Offers These Suggestions
Create a family media plan.
Agreed-upon expectations can help establish healthy technology boundaries at home – including social media use. A family media plan can promote open family discussion and rules about media use and include topics such as balancing screen/online time, content boundaries, and not disclosing personal information.
Create tech-free zones:
Encourage children to foster in-person friendships.
Since electronics can be a potential distraction after bedtime and can interfere with sleep, consider restricting the use of phones, tablets, and computers for at least 1 hour before bedtime and through the night.
Consider keeping family mealtimes and in-person gatherings device-free to build social bonds and engage in a two-way conversation.
Help your child develop social skills and nurture his or her in-person relationships by encouraging unstructured and offline connections with others and making unplugged interactions a daily priority.
The American Academy of Pediatrics
Offers Similar Suggestions:
Keep bedrooms, mealtimes, and parent–child playtimes screen free for children and parents. Parents can set a “do not disturb” option on their phones during these times.
No screens 1 hour before bedtime, and remove devices from bedrooms before bed.
I hope all of your children are doing well, but realistically many of you probably have teens with depression and other mental health challenges. If your teens are struggling I urge you to:
Consider ALL basic causes, in addition to social media and screentime. Go here for a good review of the other multiple causes of teen depression.
Consider what you can do to help your teen. Go here for a good discussion of 10 different factors under parental control that are known to treat and prevent teen depression. See how many of these 10 ideas you can implement in your teens life. Oftentimes, just adding 1 or 2 more into your teens life can make a big difference.
If your children are having problems, I hope you are able to find a competent mental health professional to assist.
Don't forget to call 988 for any mental or emotional crisis. 988 is the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, staffed 24/7. Any person in crisis can call, or a family member can call on behalf of the person that is struggling.
If your children are doing well, I urge you to give consideration to the suggestions of the Surgeon General and the American Academy of Pediatrics discussed above, along with these 10 factors, to keep your children safe.
Take care and BE HEALTHY!
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