Talking About Social Media and Digital Literacy with Kids

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In 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported on internal research from Facebook on the impact of social media on its users. Specifically, the research indicated that Instagram has been studying the effects of its app on younger users for years and the findings have been neither positive nor surprising.

The New York Times highlighted the following from the original news story:

According to the research, which was not publicly released, Instagram makes body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls. And among teenagers who reported suicidal thoughts, “13 percent of British users and 6 percent of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram,” the Journal reported.

As more people, particularly kids and adolescents, continue to experience heightened levels of isolation and anxiety caused by the pandemic and social media, parents and mental health professionals are grappling with what can be done to better protect their children’s overall well-being.

Renee Turner, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in San Antonio, notes that, although she’s not anti-technology, she is concerned about the influence of social media on young people for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it encourages them to view the world through an artificial lens without having the personal tools to recognize it.

Sarah Zalewski, an LPC who specializes in child and adolescent counseling, was working as a school counselor in a Connecticut middle school at the beginning of the pandemic and noticed the profound effects that restrictions related to COVID-19 were having on her clients and students, particularly when it came to the loss of connection with peers and not being able to maintain stabilizing routines. And naturally, turning to social media became an easy antidote to that void.

“Social media is made to be irresistible,” explains Amanda L. Giordano, an LPC who focuses on behavioral addictions. “It taps into the pleasure centers of the brain.” And with adolescents, it’s almost impossible to recognize that purposefully addictive aspect of social media or manage the influence it has on them. So, then what are parents to do? Just keep their kids away from social media, altogether?

Opening lines of communication with kids and maintaining them is critical for preventing and addressing common mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts triggered by images and information on social media. A 2016 Common Sense Media survey of more than 1,780 parents in the U.S. highlighted that fewer than half of those parents surveyed regularly discussed social media content with their adolescent children. But mental health experts say having those conversations is exactly what should be happening.

As we all continue to learn more about the evolving social media landscape and its various effects on our mental health and well-being, counselors want parents to remember that just avoiding it isn’t an option. Social media is woven into the fabric of our lives, which means that talking with kids about it and empowering them with the tools they need to successfully and safely use it are the best ways to promote their overall well-being.

Looking for great resources to help young people better navigate social media? Check out the Confidence Kit from the Dove Self Esteem project and the Trevor Project’s Instagram Safety Guide.