Can social media limits boost kids’ mental health?

Restrictions on time spent on social media could improve students’ self-esteem, reduce anxiety, Atlanta behavioral health experts say.
A 11-year-old boy plays with his father's phone outside school in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, June 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

A 11-year-old boy plays with his father's phone outside school in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, June 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Efforts to limit social media have been mounting recently in response to growing concern about their use and its relationship to a mental health crisis among today’s youth.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently called for warning labels on social media platforms like those on tobacco products. Meanwhile, schools in Atlanta, Marietta and DeKalb County have announced steps to curb student cellphone use during class. Reducing cellphone access at school is expected to improve students’ academic performance, behavior and mental health.

But what’s behind the growing interest in cellphone and social media restrictions? The Surgeon General’s 2023 advisory on social media and mental health noted a nearly universal use of social media by youth. Up to 95% of teens ages 13 to 17 reported using a social media platform, and a third said they use social media “almost constantly,” according to a Pew Research Center study quoted in the advisory.

To learn more about the impact of cellphones and social media on youth, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution consulted a couple of child behavioral health professionals. They discussed why they believe social media’s effect on the mental health of youth is gaining more attention lately; the risks and benefits of cellphones and the communication apps; what they see in their own practices; and how parents can help their children limit device time.

Here’s what they shared with the AJC:

Do you think social media warnings are an effective way to limit social media use?

“I think it’s fair to have a warning,” said Dr. Germán Antonio Reyes, a psychiatrist and medical director of Wellstar Cobb Behavioral Health. “The young population is often very vulnerable. This is a way to educate them about the risks and benefits if they use this tool.”

Like other technology, such as word processors, social media can be used in a positive way to connect or can be addictive and self-destructive, Reyes said. Warning labels could define the risks and benefits of social media and help users consider how to use it effectively or whether to use it at all, he said.

“The least we can do as a society is provide information so [users] can make the best decision.”

Reyes cited a study of college students by Iowa State University (ISU) last year that showed that cutting back on social media reduces anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

During a two-week experiment with 230 college students, half were asked to limit their social media usage to 30 minutes a day and received automated, daily reminders, according to ISU. They showed significantly less anxiety, depression, loneliness and fear of missing out compared to the control group, which could use social media freely without restricted usage, ISU reported.

Reyes surmised, “Something as simple as a reminder to decrease use seems to be effective.”

Is it helpful for schools to restrict student phone use?

“I think it would level the playing field a little,” said Jody Baumstein, a psychotherapist and child advocacy program specialist with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. School regulations might ease some of the pressure on parents concerned about the dangers of cellphone use but don’t want their child to feel socially isolated, Baumstein said.

“People are looking for some kind of help” when it comes to social media guidance.

“They are overwhelmed and scared about it,” Baumstein said. “It should not just be on the parents to work this out.”

By taking away phones, schools help students engage more and talk with their peers face-to-face, she said. Baumstein believes these efforts are part of a collective approach to tackling the issue. “There’s a hunger for more information.”

She compared social media initiatives to other national child safety campaigns promoting the use of car seats or bicycle helmets to improve behavior. But there haven’t been any guardrails when it comes to social media, Baumstein said. “We let kids go on the Internet and explore for hours and hours and hours and it’s concerning. It’s something that creeps up.”

Why are issues of social media and mental health gaining more attention lately?

Reyes believes medicine has evolved since the pandemic-imposed isolation that led to increased screen time and mental health issues in children. “The pandemic was particularly hard on youth and adolescents.” He cited social anxiety and depression among the impacts of separating children from their peers for long periods. “If you are an only child and both parents were essential workers you were home all day alone. If you have siblings, you were still alone staring at classes.”

A growing body of evidence about social media’s link to mental disorders also shed light on the issues, he said. “Studies about social media were relatively new. People suspected [the connection] for a long time, but studies analyzed the risks of social media and deepened our understanding.”

Why are youth so vulnerable to mental health disorders from social media?

“Their brains are not developed enough to have impulse control,” Baumstein said. “They are at a big disadvantage.” She explained that children’s brains are not fully developed until their mid-20s. “We can’t expect them to navigate on their own. They don’t have the capacity to say they are done.”

Children she’s counseled say they don’t believe they can control or limit their use of social media even if they want to, and they seek adult guidance to set limits. “Sometimes they tell us they are glad their parent stepped in.”

But adults with fully formed brains are often struggling to limit their own social media use, she said. “If adults have trouble figuring it out, we can’t expect our kids to do that.”

What are the pros and cons of social media use?

Reyes pointed to a review of 50 studies in 17 countries, published by PLOS Global Public Health last year, that found young people often compare themselves unfavorably to others on social media. The comparisons lead to body image concerns, eating disorders and poor mental health. “High levels of body dissatisfaction can be very unhealthy,” he said.

Social media also can be used to keep up with friends or colleagues, which helps foster meaningful connections, Reyes said. But most people stare passively at images and are not connecting.

Baumstein said that while social media apps can help youth feel connected and part of a group, they can also feel lonely, tense, depressed and anxious. During adolescence they are learning who they are, developing their identity, she said, and “that’s tied up in social media’s distorted view of reality.” In the constant flow of images, for instance, someone may appear very happy and seem to be living a perfect life, but behind the scenes they are struggling, Baumstein said. “It impacts their self-worth and relationships and it’s a real concern. Comparisons to others can be very dangerous.”

Oversharing on social media and the potential to connect with dangerous people is another concern, she said. “Kids are being targeted and fed content that is completely not developmentally appropriate.”

Baumstein recalled a patient who received 100 likes on a social post but had no one to talk to and felt lonely. “So think what happens to us. We get this attention and are connecting but what is the depth of the connection? Are we feeling more connected or do we feel more lonely?”


Tips for navigating social media

Reyes:

· Don’t start or end your day with social media. Scrolling in bed can cause sleep disturbances.

· Close social media apps and notifications that distract

· Use social media with intent. If you are just comparing yourself and scrolling passively, try to limit its use. He suggested no more than 30 minutes a day.

· Schedule use times. Parents can reframe the restriction as offline time to spend together as a family or for other activities.

Baumstein:

· Have conversations about social media. Use curiosity rather than judgment. “The goal is to teach kids how to navigate, to build their awareness to go inward and notice: I don’t like how I feel. I feel tension in my body.”

· Put routines and practices in place. Have a family media plan to shut down technology at least an hour before bed and not have it in the bedroom overnight. No screens during family meals.

· Teach children it’s OK to be bored and sit still or explore opportunities to be creative or problem-solve. “What we see over and over is social media used as a crutch to deal with stress. Boredom is not something to be fearful of.”

· Don’t talk to your children in isolation. Be a good role model when it comes to your own media use

For more tips on the subject, visit Children’s Strong4Life family resources.

Editor’s Note: This story was first published on July 1, but has been updated to reflect the additional school districts that have taken action to limit cellphone access during class.