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

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By Lisa Radzak | WithAll

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. 

While it is nearly impossible to protect your child or teen from negative body standards in social media, here are some tips you can use to help them distinguish between unrealistic and realistic body standards online.

About Lisa Radzak | WithAll

Lisa Radzak is the executive director of WithAll – a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization serving a national audience in order to equip adult role models with what we can all do to support children’s mental and physical health relating to body image and food relationships.
Lisa came to WithAll with a background in government relations and law. In 2011 she became a parent and began to reflect on her own experience with years of struggle around food and body image—which developed into an eating disorder. Lisa was able to find support and recovery, but not everyone is so lucky.
She does this work because she firmly believes no child is predestined to feel confused or shameful about food, or to feel bad about their body. And certainly, no child is predestined to have an eating disorder.
And yet, every 52 minutes someone in the United States dies of an eating disorder, and – at the same time – 2 million kids who are healthy today will have an eating disorder before they become adults, if nothing is done to change their trajectory.
Adults can change that trajectory and support all kids to have a healthy body image and a positive relationship with food.

TIPS FOR PARENTS:

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 organizations 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!

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.

baby crying - shaken baby syndrome prevention

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.

About Lisa Radzak

Lisa Radzak is the executive director of WithAll – a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization serving a national audience in order to equip adult role models with what we can all do to support children’s mental and physical health relating to body image and food relationships.

Lisa came to WithAll with a background in government relations and law. In 2011 she became a parent and began to reflect on her own experience with years of struggle around food and body image—which developed into an eating disorder. Lisa was able to find support and recovery, but not everyone is so lucky.
She does this work because she firmly believes no child is predestined to feel confused or shameful about food, or to feel bad about their body. And certainly, no child is predestined to have an eating disorder.

And yet, every 52 minutes someone in the United States dies of an eating disorder, and – at the same time – 2 million kids who are healthy today will have an eating disorder before they become adults, if nothing is done to change their trajectory.
Adults can change that trajectory and support all kids to have a healthy body image and a positive relationship with food.

Resources like these are provided by American SPCC – a national nonprofit dedicated to building positive childhoods for all children by empowering parents and caregivers with research-backed education and support.

This work is made possible by passionate donors and community advocates. Learn how you can get involved and support the mission here.

Parenting Resource Center

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