Skip to main content

Listen to the children

By ,

Photo by Tracy Le Blanc.

You bump into an old buddy you haven’t seen for a while and your catch-up conversation sounds like this:

Person 1: “I just got back from visiting family in L.A.”

Person 2: “Like. I just had to put my cat to sleep.”

Person 1: “Sad face. I made an awesome apple pie last night.”

Person 2: “Yummy icon. Did you see the price of gas in Garberville?”

Person 1: “Mad face. My brother got a new fishing pole.”  ….etc.

If you’re wondering what’s wrong with this picture, you are probably realizing that an in-person, real-life conversation would never sound like this. There would be questions asked, and give and take that represents a real connection between two beings who are interested in each other’s lives. “How was the drive?” “Was the cat ill?” “Let’s all stop driving cars and get mules instead.” In other words, active listening.

Social media and mental health

A lot of harm to teens comes from exposure to content that ranges from disturbing to openly hateful.

While many teens seek a sense of connection through the use of social media and while many of us leaned on it heavily during the isolating days of the early pandemic, it turns out that counselors, psychologists, and even the surgeon general are now setting their sights on the overuse of social media as one of the main drivers of the mental health crisis in American teens.

Writing for Counseling Today, a publication of the American Counseling Association, Grace Hipona says that “conversations” just like the one above are all too typical of what takes place on social media and that they completely omit the vital “active listening” element that characterizes true connection. When teens do much of their socializing (an average of 3.5 hours per day, much of it late at night when the user is alone) in this way, crucial aspects of social development are skipped.

Aside from this developmental deficiency, a lot of harm to teens comes from exposure to content that ranges from disturbing to openly hateful. Appearance comparison fosters poor body image and low self-esteem; hate speech toward racial and social minorities increases a sense of separation, and endless sites depicting violence and cruelty are indelibly occupying impressionable teen minds. Sleep disturbance and reduced sleep time are also damaging consequences of social media overuse.

The rates of teen depression, anxiety, loneliness, and other markers of poor mental health have been rising for over a decade, and the pandemic’s school closures and other socially isolating measures spiked them even more. Depression and bipolar disorder affect 14% of 13-17 year-olds. One in three American teens meets the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, a reference of mental health and brain disorders maintained by the American Psychiatric Association.

Response to the overuse of social media

Tech companies should be more careful about what content is available to underage users.

A widely publicized report released last month by the American Psychological Association (APA), names several scientifically established facts about teen social media use and then goes on to offer ten general recommendations to begin to minimize the negative effects. The report also states that more research is needed to understand the complex situation.

On the heels of the report’s release, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy piled on with his own advisory message to the American people calling for a multi-pronged response to the crisis:

“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. Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content, to bullying and harassment. And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends. 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.”

Murthy also urges policymakers, tech companies, families, and teens themselves, as well as researchers to pitch in on the effort to reduce and eventually eliminate harmful effects.

The ten recommendations made by the APA in the May 23 report call primarily on parents and families to lead the charge in improving their kids’ habits, starting with monitoring and education at a pre-pubescent age. Among the recommendations are a lot of “shoulds” stating that adolescents should avoid damaging content, that sites should not drive kids to harmful content, and that kids should be encouraged to look at sites that promote true connection and healthy social support. Adolescents should be screened for signs of depression or anxiety that may stem from overuse of social media. Tech companies should be more careful about what content is available to underage users. Reporting structures should be set up so that damaging content can be reported and removed.

Teens themselves can be recruited to devise policies that would limit harm to their peer group.

Murthy and others realize that an on-the-ground solution may require even legislators to step in before the crisis worsens. Parents are often under-equipped to educate and monitor, as they are not proficient themselves in many of the modern platforms.

The APA report acknowledges that not all teens fall victim to what some describe as an addiction to social media. However, 50% of teens state that it would be hard for them to give up. Yet, perhaps at least part of the solution lies in tapping the insight of adolescents themselves. Teens themselves can be recruited to devise policies that would limit harm to their peer group, and this approach is likely to get much better buy-in from the age group.

Nineteen-year-old Emma Lembke founded LogOFF, an initiative to encourage adolescents to reconnect with their offline lives. She believes teens should be at the table for designing trainings, recommendations, and policies on how to avoid social media harm. She says, “They have to be built out with young people as active participants, rather than passive onlookers. I think a lot of these curricula are created by individuals who do not understand what it’s like to grow up as a digital native, a naive young person in the online world.”

Reinforcing human connection

Have you had a conversation with your teen about their use of social media lately? Have you actively listened to their concerns about some of the mental health issues facing their generation? Perhaps by reinforcing the human connection we are all wired to experience, the children can lead us to a healthier way to absorb the damaging impacts of tech companies and online platforms. We are all in this together. Click here for a more detailed summary of the APA report.

Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.