Mental health clinicians and students who work with youth or parents often wonder about how social media impacts the development of our youngest members of society. Sensational media headlines frequently detail the problems they face on social media, but these digital connections also come with benefits. These are some of the upsides and downsides that results with kids and teens use social media.
Increased caring and empathy
Some research shows that social media can increase our capacity for empathy. Social media is primarily a community based tool, and virtual sharing and connecting teaches empathy much like interacting in person. Using social media can help children and teens read and understand the perspective of others and increase compassion through liking, commenting, and sharing when others post. Social media is a powerful opportunity for parents to teach children positive, caring interactions with family, friends, and even strangers.
Potential for global connectivity
In our increasingly mobile world, many youth live far away from extended family or move away from good friends. With social media, it’s easier than ever for young people to stay up to date and connected with others from a distance. Social media also opens up the opportunity for young people to appreciate perspectives of youth from other cultures. Introduced in an age appropriate way, kids and teens can develop interactions and connectedness with peers from around the globe who they otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to connect with. This connectedness also offers great opportunity for learning; many kids form study groups to master their school material.
Decreases mental health in excess
Spending long periods of time on social media platforms, which can be as short as an hour in length, can have adverse mental health effects on youth. Using social media for long period creates an addictive tendency, causing kids to neglect other aspects of their life like school work and extracurricular activities. Other research suggests that using social media for long periods decreases self-esteem, as kids and teens can tend to negatively compare their life to the idealized versions of classmates they see on social media. They can also become dependent on to receiving ‘likes’ and praise from peers and will report feeling depressed when they don’t feel seen online.
Risk of cyberbullying
Bullying has unfortunately always been present in schools, but social media means cyberbullying can follow kids outside of the classroom. Teens and kids can use social media to post negative statements about their peers or to send inflammatory messages to targets. Minors also can be at risk of online stalking or inappropriate behavior, both from other youth and adults. To minimize these risks, adults should encourage youth to let a parent, teacher, counselor, or other trusted adult know if they witness or are a victim of cyberbullying.
For young people today, social media is usually a part of life. For teens and tweens to reap the benefits of social media while minimizing risks, it’s important they keep most of their use of it to structured and positive interactions. Clinicians can help by encouraging parents to keep communication open about social media and work with young people to help them understand the greater context of our online world.