Adolescents are social creatures who need social outlets to stay healthy. Many teens rely on social media to connect with others. It’s free, widely used, and easily accessible. And while social media is a reliable source of support for teens, a new study shows it’s less effective than real-life support.
Social support provides a sense of belonging, confidence, and security. It reminds teens that there are people who care and are willing to help if needed. This helps them cope with stressors, which can have a protective effect on mental health.
The more time teens spend on social media, the less time they have for real-world interaction. When young people spend more time on social media, studies show they typically have a smaller, less connected offline social network, more relationship problems, and lower academic achievement. In some cases, they also report a decrease in emotional support, more feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression, and a higher risk of death.
Social media interactions are typically brief and limited to likes and comments. By contrast, face-to-face social interactions with friends, family, and other people promote deeper connections. Researchers believe these more substantial bonds help explain why real-life support boosts mental health while spending too much time on social media can negatively impact mental health.
Tips for Enhancing Teens’ Social Networks
If you’re concerned about your teen’s social media use, here are a few ways you can help:
Social media has benefits, and it has been a lifeline for many teens during the COVID-19 pandemic. It can be used to stay in touch with distant friends and relatives, network with people with similar interests, and learn new things.
However, it’s not an ideal outlet for day-to-day social support, so help teens balance the time they spend on social media with face-to-face interactions. Monitor how much time they’re on social media and set limits to encourage more offline interaction.
Use Social Media as a Launchpad.
Teens who have particular hobbies or interests can make new connections through social media, which can plant the seed for real-life interactions. For example, teens who enjoy sports may meet online and then set up an in-person game on the weekend. Help them make this transition from online to offline.
Do Regular Check-Ins.
Social media affects people in different ways. Have teens check in with themselves after spending time on social media. Do they feel understood, supported, and connected? Or do they feel sad, lonely, stressed, or worried? Many young people report feeling inadequate or envious of others’ seemingly perfect lives after spending time on social media. Cyberbullying affects more than half of teens online, which can also contribute to mental health issues.
If your teen uses social media for a short amount of time to stay in touch with family and friends and actively engaging with others through comments and posts, it may be beneficial. If they spend more than a couple of hours per day on social media and use it as their primary source of social support, or just for passive browsing, it may make them feel less supported.
A 2018 study found that 30 minutes a day on social media is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and sleep issues. If a 30-minute limit isn’t realistic, the study found that simply being more mindful of social media use can improve mood and focus.
Teach Them to Think Before Logging On.
Before getting on social media, encourage your teen to check in with their motivations first. Are they using social media because it’s more comfortable than face-to-face interactions? Are they comparing themselves to others? Will checking social media make them feel better or worse? If it’s hurting more than helping, teens can reduce their time on social media by disabling notifications, using an app to track their time, or turning off the phone at designated times.
Help Them Get Involved Offline.
Encourage your teen to find a hobby or activity they enjoy, as well as a live outlet for them to participate in that activity. They could join a club, volunteer, or arrange a get-together with a classmate. Set aside family time each week to do confidence-building activities like exercise or trying something new. In all of these interactions, have them keep their phones off.
If your teen isn’t comfortable reaching out to people for real-life support, talk to them about underlying issues like social anxiety, stress, or problems at school. A mental health professional can help. Therapists can be a vital source of emotional support and help teens evaluate their relationship with social media. They can also provide social skills training so teens feel more comfortable creating in-person relationships.
Social Media Can Help, But Nothing Beats In-Person Contact
Social media plays an important role in teens’ lives, but it has limits. When it comes to socializing, face-to-face interactions still win out over time on a screen. With your help and encouragement, teens can build social lives that enrich their mental health, both online and offline.