Understand the health risks of your teen’s social media use
Written by Dr. Mandakini Sadhir, a physician at UK Adolescent Medicine.
Today’s teens are tech-savvy digital natives, well-versed in internet communication and the latest social media apps.
Not surprisingly, smartphones have become the technological tool of choice for most adolescents, allowing them to access the internet easily and communicate with others through social media platforms, including Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Twitter.
The good news is that social media and internet use can encourage academic enrichment, creative expression and social interaction. Unfortunately, social media has its downsides as well. Too much time online or unhealthy use of social media can affect teens’ emotional, physical and mental well-being.
By understanding the risks associated with internet and social media use, you can help the adolescents in your life use these tools safely. Here’s how:
Know the risks
Weight gain: When teens engage in more online activities, they may be less physically active, which can lead to weight gain and other health concerns.
Body image concerns: When teens use social media, they can be exposed to websites and accounts that provide tips and techniques for maintaining dangerously thin physiques or that promote unhealthy eating behaviors. This can trigger body image concerns and unhealthy eating behaviors that may lead to an eating disorder.
Inadequate sleep: Social media can interfere with sleep, especially when it’s used before or during bedtime. Screen exposure makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Inadequate sleep can make teens unfocused and fatigued, and it can cause mood changes.
Cyberbullying and harassment: Cyberbullying, which is most common during the middle and early high school years, is perhaps the most well-known concern associated with social media use. It includes any type of harassment via email, instant messaging, websites, text messaging, or videos or pictures. Bullying behavior online includes teasing, telling lies, making fun of someone, making rude or mean comments, spreading rumors, or making threatening or aggressive comments.
Teens who are victims of cyberbullying can become depressed and socially withdrawn. They may not want to go to school or may have declining grades. They can become irritable and angry after using social media and might avoid discussion about their online activities.
Teens who are being cyberbullied complain of frequent headaches, abdominal pain or loss of appetite, or they might eat excessively. They may also struggle with sleep. Teens who are cyberbullied are at increased risk for abusing substances, harming themselves and becoming suicidal.
Sexting: It’s not uncommon for romantic relationships to take place online as teens express attraction by liking, texting and interacting with others. Sometimes that interaction involves sexting, or the sending and receiving of sexual images and messages.
Research shows that girls are more likely to send sext messages than boys, often citing pressure from boys as their reason for sexting. Other reasons for sexting include flirting or sending a “present” to a teen’s romantic partner.
Sexting has been linked to a increased likelihood of teens becoming sexually active and engaging in high-risk behaviors, including unprotected sex and substance use.
Invasion of privacy: Through social media apps, teens’ location and other personal information may get shared, making them more vulnerable to cyberbullying and sexual harassment.
Take action to encourage healthy social media use
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents create a media plan for their teens to help them use social media and the internet in a healthy manner. Below are some guidelines:
- Avoid media exposure at least an hour before bedtime.
- Encourage and engage in family activities such as family dinners, sports or reading.
- Talk to your teens about internet safety, privacy and sexting. Have conversations about treating others with respect online, and help your teens understand when to ask for help.
- When your child is interested in talking with you, stop what you are doing and give your full attention. Make eye contact and summarize what you think you are hearing. Adolescents’ inclination to reach out to parents about something important can be rare and fleeting. Being dismissed may make them less likely to reach out in the future.
Find out how we can help
At UK Adolescent Medicine, our team of medical and mental health providers routinely talks to teenagers about their social media use and provides them with educational resources about online safety. We also provide counseling to address any physical or mental health concerns related to social media and internet use.