Mighty Blog

Tips for kids and parents to address mental health concerns linked to social media use

A quick search on the social media platform TikTok will show that #depressedTikTok is more than a hashtag – it may be an indicator of a real mental health concern among kids. There are a lot of hashtags trending across TikTok involving words like “depressed” or “depression.”

During Mental Health Awareness Month in May, Dr. Katy Miller, adolescent health specialist at Children’s Minnesota, broke down some of the key mental health concerns tied to social media. Dr. Miller also provided important tips for kids and parents to help navigate these challenges.

A like on social media can be addictive – literally

Kids’ and teenagers’ brains are developmentally different than adult brains. They have a biologic predisposition towards addictive behaviors and activities because of these developmental differences. Social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram and SnapChat can be a highly rewarding and addictive experience.

A like on social media triggers the same dopamine pathways seen in chemical addictions. Social media use is very different from chemical dependency because we don’t see physical withdrawal symptoms, build-up or tolerance. However, we do see parallels in behaviors and activation of reward pathways in the brain.

Unrealistic comparisons to others create mental health concerns

Kids and teens – especially those in their early-to-mid-adolescence – are at a point in their development where they are constantly comparing themselves to their peers. This is a normal stage of adolescence. In early adolescence, fitting-in and being part of a peer group is one of the biggest developmental tasks this age group will face.

Unfortunately, social media creates a standard of comparison that is unrealistic and unrelenting. It’s important to keep in mind that:

  • Teenagers are constantly seeing the best versions of their peers on social media, which often doesn’t reflect the reality of what may be going on in the lives of their peer groups.
  • Social media filters can exacerbate already problematic beauty standards, and make teens feel inadequate.
    • This issue is extremely prevalent with cisgender girls.

Dr. Miller says unrealistic comparisons on social media are also something that adults can struggle with. But, it’s important to remember that because of the developmental stages and tasks of adolescence – teenagers are much more vulnerable to this type of mental health concern.

Social media safety concerns

References to self-harm, disordered eating or suicidal ideation are easy to find on many popular social media platforms. Dr. Miller warns there is a dark side to social media where teenagers with eating disorders, for example, can find really specific and potentially dangerous strategies to lose weight quickly.

Keep a watchful eye open

If there are legitimate safety concerns – such as messages from older individuals that seem predatory, or bullying that has worsened a teen’s mental health – a parent might need to be more involved in regulating social media use until it is clear that the teenager can safely use social media without parental supervision.

Create a content contract with your kids

Dr. Miller recommends parents and their kids set expectations by creating a written social media and phone use contract. The contract can include stipulations for health or safety reasons such as:

  • Watching the for you page with your child on their TikTok to see what videos they’re viewing.
  • Creating clear plans for when parents or guardians can check their child’s text messages or apps to see what content they are viewing.
    • This will vary by age and a child’s degree of independence.
    • Grant increasing autonomy as a child or teenager demonstrates they can use social media responsibly.
  • Setting clear limits on when social media and phones can be used.
  • Not allowing phones at the dinner table.
  • Keeping phones out of the bed, and prohibiting phone use 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.
    • Social media contributes to sleep loss, and sleep is critically important for teens’ mental health.
  • Keeping location tracking turned on in some cases, especially for younger adolescents or if there are safety concerns.

The contract can be updated as teenagers get older, and teens can also gradually have more autonomy and privacy. You should allow teens to be part of the conversations of how much privacy they think they should be allowed to have. But remember, the parent is the one who ultimately makes that call.

The positives of social media

Of course, social media has many, many positives, and can create connections which is a really beautiful thing. This is especially important for kids who might struggle to find a peer group to connect with. For example:

  • LGBTQ kids can find and connect with other LGBTQ kids their age.
  • Teens with rare medical conditions can find other teens their age going through similar experiences.
  • Online gaming can be a great way for introverted kids and teens to develop a social network and connect with peers.