8 Ways To Protect Kids’ Mental Health With Social Media Use

Tips for parents to help their children healthily navigate today’s digital world

How Parents can Protect Children’s Mental Health with Social Media Use

Whether it’s via text message or a smartphone app like Instagram or Snapchat, today’s youth and teens can both receive and share personal information far beyond what was possible for their parents during childhood. The problem is we know that social media usage is also contributing to anxiety, depression, and disordered eating/eating disorders.

Researchers have long demonstrated that social media can negatively impact a child’s or teen’s body image. In fact, researchers in the Eating Disorders Coalition’s study of the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) have reported that social media companies knowingly use algorithms to promote harmful mental health content that boosts user engagement. Instagram, for example, hosts 90,000 pro-eating disorder accounts that are accessible to 20 million users; annually, they net $230M from these accounts.

Over time, a child’s or teen’s poor body image may result in serious consequences, such as eating disorders or suicidal ideation. Many teens attribute an increase in anxiety and depression to their engagement on Instagram.

Tips Parents can use to help children distinguish between unrealistic and realistic body standards online.

While it is nearly impossible to protect your child or teen from negative body standards across all media platforms, especially social media, these 8 tips should help them be able to have more healthy engagement with this content.

1) Model healthy body standards at home by speaking positively about your own body.

Talk about what your body can do, how it feels—not how it looks. When your child uses their body for a physical activity, suggest that they “thank their legs,” for example, for helping with the movement.

2) Model a healthy relationship with food by avoiding diet talk, weight-loss talk, or talk about “good foods” v. “bad foods.”

Don’t make food a moral issue. After all, highly sweet or highly processed food tastes good! Kids love how these foods taste. When we tell kids the foods they love are “bad,” we’re sending a message to the kid that their tastes or desires are bad! And making any food “taboo” is going to make a kid want it more.

As a parent, you get to decide what is “on the menu”—for meals and snacks. From there, let your child decide what from “the menu” they will eat.

baby crying - shaken baby syndrome prevention
baby crying - shaken baby syndrome prevention

3) Ask your child to consider how viewing certain posts or accounts makes them feel.

If posts or accounts make them feel bad about themselves or their body, suggest they instead follow accounts focused on learning new hobbies or humor or positive things that bring education and joy.

4) Talk with your kids about unrealistic body images they see on social media.

Critically analyze the account together to determine what messages the influencer might be trying to promote. If you see a body type that is unrealistic, talk about Photoshop, or the possibility that these photos may be altered and not reflect reality. Teach your children and teens about the filters that social media users use to alter selfies and other photos of themselves.

5) Talk about the marketing tactics orgaizations use to sell their products on social media.

Help your kids identify when a company is trying to sell them something (particularly when it is under the guise of promoting health).

6) Encourage kids to celebrate their unique skills, interests, and talents.

Remind them how much more than our bodies we each are. Do this out loud about yourself!

baby crying - shaken baby syndrome prevention
baby crying - shaken baby syndrome prevention

7) Take a few minutes to educate yourself about the platforms your kids use.

Today, we use “social media” to refer to websites and apps that allow people to interact or create and share content. Popular social media platforms for kids include Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr. Visit these sites and look around. Familiarize yourself so that you have an understanding of what is possible to communicate (and how communication happens) on these platforms.

8) Consider time limits on social media, specifically, and “screens” generally.

Have open conversations with your children about how much time they’re spending on social media and how they feel afterward. Help them think critically about where they choose to spend their free time.

Protecting our children IS possible.

For many parents, or for any adult, these time limits on our own use are not possible since technology is integrated into nearly every aspect of our lives. But for a child or teenager, limiting screen time is critical for a kid’s physical and emotional growth. As a child’s brain develops, their cognitive development, emotional development, and relationship-building skills learning must happen mostly with hands-on, real-world exposure–not on a screen. If all of a child’s time is allocated to a screen, this real-world exposure is not possible. To learn how to help your kids limit their screen time, check out the tips below.

For more on these topics, check out WITHALL’s Parents Guide To Social Media and additional resources at whattosaynow.org

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American Society for the Positive Care of Children is dedicated to preventing child maltreatment and raising awareness of the lifelong impacts of adverse childhood experiences by providing parents with the skills, tools, and educational resources that build their confidence and capacity as caregivers and create more positive childhood experiences. We’re able to continue providing resources like these free of charge to nearly 1,000,000 families who rely on us annually thanks to the generosity of our supporters.

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