Is your child obsessed with social media? Do they babble about people you’ve never heard of, like PewDiePie, Brain Jotter, and Charli D’Amelio?

Many children do, and their interest is normal for their age group, which is hugely influenced by social media. A 2022 survey by Pew Research shows 95 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds use YouTube, 67 percent use TikTok, 62 percent use Instagram, and 59 percent use Snapchat. Alarmingly, 35 percent of teens use at least one social media site “almost constantly.” TikTok’s popularity is the most meteoric. Founded in September 2016, TikTok is now the world’s most-searched domain, thanks largely to use by Generation Z.

Teens use other social media, too, but to a lesser degree: only 32 percent use Facebook, 23 percent use Twitter, Twitch and WhatsApp garner 20 percent each, and a mere 17 percent still use Reddit.

How much time is your child spending on social media? If they are “average” they spend 1 to 3 hours each day, according to a 2019 UK study published in Paediatrics, with 20.8 percent of 13- to 15-year-olds spending more than five hours per day.

Social media is wildly popular for a multitude of reasons. Social media helps teens build their networks, express themselves, connect with peers around the world, not to mention finding entertainment, humor, news, and educational material on a massive variety of topics. All of these aspects are valuable, but there are also many dangers. In fact, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently said on CNN’s Newsroom that 13 is too early for kids to use social media. Early adolescents, he said, are still “developing their identity, their sense of self… The skewed, and often distorted, environment of social media often does a disservice to many of those children.” So even though legally most companies allow kids ages 13 and older to register and use their sites, it’s important for parents to determine their own guidelines for use.

Parents need to carefully consider how social media can affect children’s developing minds and determine what role it can or should play in their lives. Much like video games, social media can both benefit and harm your child’s mental health, depending on what kids access and how the information is used, which is terrifying for parents. A good rule of thumb is that social media can be safe when used in moderation and with parental supervision, but it can be harmful if used too much, without guidance, and with access to age-inappropriate content.

Here’s what parents should watch out for when it comes to social media.

Sadness and anxiety

Multiple studies show that excessive time spent on social media can lead to children feeling sad, anxious, or lonely. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Adolescence reported that since 2012, teen loneliness and depression had both increased. The increase was larger for girls than for boys. One of the root causes is smartphones and new technology.

Another report in the International Journal of Adolescence and Youth found that teen depression, anxiety, and psychological distress are correlated with social media use. A 2022 Atlantic article “Why American Teens Are So Sad” cited CDC data revealing that the percentage of American high school students who feel persistently sad or hopeless rose from 26 percent to 44 percent from 2009 to 2021. That study, too, listed social media use as the first of four contributing factors.

Body shaming and self-harm

Social media, according a 2020 report, now has the largest impact on how women feel about their bodies, with 87.73 percent admitting they compare their bodies to others they see on social media. Teen (and younger) girls suffer from the same pressure. A 2021 Time article called “Instagram Makes Teen Girls Hate Themselves. Is That a Bug or a Feature?” states that Instagram has features “baked into the very core of the platform” that can lead teen girls to develop negative feelings about their bodies, and that Facebook (which owns Instagram) knew this was harmful to the “mental health of many teenagers — particularly girls.” Facebook’s own research, notes a Wall Street Journal exposé, revealed Instagram made “body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” What’s more, “6 percent of American users” who were teens with suicidal thoughts, “traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.”

Cyber bullying

Any way you look at the numbers, online bullying is a problem for today’s teens. A 2022 Pew Research study found that 46 percent of U.S. teens between 13 and 17 years old have experienced cyberbullying, including name calling, having rumors spread, and receiving unwanted explicit images and threats, with the primary victims being older teen girls who were harassed for their physical appearance. An earlier survey noted that of the teens who report being online “almost constantly,” 67 percent have been cyberbullied, compared with 53 percent of those who use the internet several times a day or less. The Cyberbullying Research Center states that LGBTQIA youth are 50 percent more likely to be victimized by cyberbullying, and transgender teens are the most likely to be targeted. There is a bit of good news and that is that bullying in general has decreased in recent years, according to studies like this Maryland research with data collected from 246,306 students. Cyberbullying has also decreased a bit. Pew Research from 2018 shows that 59 percent of teens reported being cyberbullied in 2018, while the figure for 2002 of 46 percent — though still abysmally high — reveals a 13 percent drop in the past four years.

Risky behavior

Virtual peer pressure can be incredibly powerful. Several studies indicate a relationship between “alcoholposts”, or alcohol-related posts, on Instagram and alcohol abuse. A 2020 study in the Netherlands concluded that, “these posts have been shown to increase drinking behaviors.” What’s more, the ubiquity of social media posts about celebrities using drugs or other addictive substances normalizes drug use, which is not helpful for anyone, especially teens whose brains have not yet fully developed.

Gang-associated youth often use social media to taunt rivals, leading to offline violence, according to 2020 research based on fieldwork in Chicago’s South Side. Perhaps the worst danger is when social media directly urges viewers to indulge in risky activities, like the “Choking Game”, which encourages auto-erotic asphyxiation. This map shows the huge number of deaths caused by this dangerous game, advertised by TikTok.

Parenting in the age of technology

Unfortunately, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the long-term effects of social media on the developing brain. And since social media keeps evolving and isn’t going anywhere, parents need to think carefully about the role it plays in children’s lives. But there are smart precautions parents can take, including:

  • Limit your child’s use. Talk with your child and agree on a reasonable time limit or other time restrictions, such as not for the last hour before going to bed. There are tools to monitor and limit access to help you and your child figure out how much time they are spending now and then scale back use.
  • Raise your child’s awareness. By openly explaining — and discussing — how social media habits can negatively impact their mental health, you can help your child make smart, and safe, digital choices.
  • Create a safe space for sharing. Find quiet moments to talk with your child and when you do, try to listen more than you talk. The more you make it clear that you are willing to listen without judgment, the more you are likely to hear from your teen.
  • Model the behavior you want to see. As true now as it was when your child was a toddler: the behavior you model is what your child learns from first and most. Remember that your kids are watching you. If you’re using your phone all day, your child will consider that normal — and do the same. Shut off all gizmos regularly and enjoy face-to-face conversation. Take your children outside, without digital toys, and enjoy the wind, sunshine, trees, and flowers. Growing brains need the kind of nourishment that technology — no matter how sophisticated and bewitching — can never supply.