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Social Media and Screen Time

Posted 5th March 2020

One of the trickiest things to negotiate in today’s modern family is the use of social media, and screen time in general. There is growing concern around negative impact it can have on young people. These worries range from the quality and quantity of sleep, to compulsive checking of phones/screens, worries about the impact of viewing distorted images of body shape or appearance, links to depression and poor self-esteem, as well as cyber bullying and trolling.

Talking to families about screen time and social media, it is clear that this is an extremely thorny area to negotiate and can often be the locus of falling outs and arguments.

So what are the pitfalls and how can we avoid them?

There is conflicting evidence around what exact effect screen time has on sleep. There is some evidence that the blue light emitted by screens can disrupt the body’s circadian rhythms and inhibit the body’s production of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone[1]. However, focussing on exactly how much time your child is spending on their device or using social media might be counterproductive.

Each family is different. A good rule of thumb may be to turn off devices an hour before bedtime. Or more important for you might be establishing good sleep routines with your child, and spending some calm time reading or having a bath in the hours before bedtime. It can be tempting to allow our children to relax by watching TV or computer games after a long day at school, and there is indeed something to be said for these activities as a way of winding down after a busy day. Sleep, however, represents a transition from being in company to being alone, and as such can be managed more successfully if you can spend some relaxed downtime with your child just before bed.

Of course, with adolescents the picture is slightly different. An adolescent may wish to spend significant amounts of time away from you when at home, communicating with friends or playing games online. It can feel very difficult to talk to your adolescent about their use of social media and how much time they spend looking at a screen. You may feel torn by wanting to control their use of social media and feeling shut out by it.

A good place to start is by modelling the kind of behaviour you expect around devices. We are all guilty of checking our phones at the dinner table. Setting the example of the kind of behaviour you expect can be particularly important, as adolescents are often finely tuned to detect hypocrisy.

It might be helpful to have a set of shared expectations around the use of devices, discussed and agreed by everyone in the family. This could include no screens at the table and using mealtimes to talk to each other. There are useful features for most devices that summarise the amount of screen time used each week, and this can be a good place to start a discussion about the pros and cons of devices and social media. You might want to set some shared goals, so that everyone in the family aims to reduce their screen time.

There is some evidence to suggest that adolescent girls use social media more than adolescent boys, and there is a potential link with higher rates of depression in girls than boys of this age. One can easily imagine the negative effect of constantly seeing images of other people having a good time or looking ‘fabulous’ if one’s mood is already low. Being open and frank about the realities of social media is essential. It might be important to think with your adolescent about what is really going in what they see; are people really having such a good time all the time? Might photos have been touched up or manipulated? You could discuss the other ways that friends can show they like you, other than ‘likes’ or comments on social media posts. How might they instigate other ways of communicating with their friends?

It might also be helpful to discuss ‘fake news’ as most young people will have heard this term. What purpose do they think ‘fake news’ serves? How can they check whether something is true or not? Does the fact that something appears online mean that it’s true? This discussion might include how ‘influencers’ might promote diets or food supplements without making it clear that they are advertising something, or the adverts that run alongside certain content that seeps into your awareness. Being curious about what they think, as well as sharing gaps in your own knowledge, might help your adolescent feel you have a genuine interest in their opinions and lifestyle.

It might be helpful to have a discussion with your child about what to do about trolling or cyberbullying before they are allowed access to social media or online content.

It is important that young people do not engage with negative comments posted in their social media or online, as this can fuel more negative comments. If your child tells you about being trolled or bullied online, save a copy and report it to the site administrator. You may also wish to tell your child’s school. Receiving negative comments can be very upsetting, and if your child shares the experience with you, it will be important to reflect back how painful and upsetting it might feel for them. Adolescence is a time of great change, physically and emotionally. Young people are negotiating trying to separate from their family, and rely heavily on friendship groups to help them manage. Telling an adolescent to ‘just ignore’ negative remarks posted online might not allow your child to feel you have understood the impact on them.


[1] https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side