Teens and social media: When is it too much?

News & Events

By Dr. Max J. Coppes, M.D., PhD, MBA

Social media icons Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram

The use of social apps—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat—has become an integral part of most people's lives. In contrast to traditional media where one source is going to many receivers, social media operates in a dialogic transmission system, whereby many sources interact, sometimes simultaneously, with many receivers. This provides for superior interactivity between its users. Not surprisingly, it also plays a major role in the lives of our children once they are old enough to understand how to access and use social media.

On average, children start exploring social media at around ages 10 to 12. They rapidly discover that electronic communication allows for unique and personalized ways to make and keep friendships, develop and expand family ties, get help with homework, share music, art, and experiences, and discover the world in all its often unrestricted facets.

Surveys suggest that over 90 percent of teenagers use social media and that approximately 75 percent have at least one active social media profile by age 17. Access to social media is greatly facilitated by the fact that over two-thirds of teens have their own mobile devices with internet capabilities, a substantial change relative to previous generations.

While it is generally felt that the use of social media has many positive aspects, we now also recognize that its use can have negative impacts. The use of hazardous sites or the inherent risks of using social media (identity theft, being hacked, cyber-bullying, etc.) are indeed damaging to children. Any use of hazardous social media is too much and carries serious hazards.

But what about the use of “normal” and/or “safe” social media? Well, data suggest that too much use of “non-hazardous” social media can indeed affect health.

First, some basic data. For example, how much do normal teenagers use social media? A study from the Pew Research Center found that more than 50 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds go online several times a day. This quickly increases during the teenage years to over 70 minutes per day, with teenage girls having the highest usage at just over 140 minutes per day. It is important to recognize that non-school related use of the internet and social media is often beheld by teenagers as important for developing their self-esteem, their acceptance among peers and their mental health in general.

As parents, we recognize that the use of social media can indeed contribute, in many positive ways, to our children's growth. At the same time, we also worry about them spending too much time online. We worry about their ability to communicate effectively in face-to-face settings or in writing. Many of us also feel and/or worry that our children are addicted to social media.

Recent studies suggest that the overuse of social media indeed mirrors addiction. Reports now show that teenagers and college kids experience anxiety when deprived of their connected devices and consequently feel a compulsion to access their social media applications. The emotional symptoms they experience are very similar to those seen in substance abuse. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association is considering making internet addiction a bonafide diagnosis. Pediatricians, therefore, encourage limits on the use of social media, a recommendation more easily suggested than accomplished.

So, when should a parent seek help? Aside from unhealthy use of social media (cyber-bullying, sexting, online users asking for sexual relations, etc., which should be addressed immediately), the use of social media for more than 120 minutes per day should trigger parental concern. If you feel unable to deal with the overuse of social media, contact your pediatrician for help and guidance.

Dr. Max J. Coppes, M.D., PhD, MBA, is professor and Nell J. Redfield chair of pediatrics at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine. He is also physician-in-chief at Renown Children's Hospital.

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Released: Wednesday January 23, 2019 @ 4:00 PM