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A Tech-Based World: The Risks and Benefits of Social Media and Screentime

by Caraline McDonnell, BA

Technology, social media, and screentime seem to become more and more entrenched in our lives and the lives of our children with every passing year. We engage with screens while watching movies or TV, shopping from home, communicating with family and friends from a distance, scrolling on social media, watching or creating videos, working, reading, and for many of our kids, even while doing homework! The use of screens day-to-day has become normal across the United States, at home, in schools, and everywhere in between.

As of 2022, up to 95% of youth between the ages of 13 and 17 reported using a social media platform, and one third of them endorsed using social media “almost constantly.” Younger kids have confirmed social media use as well, with up to 40% of kids ages 8-12 on social media, regardless of age limitations on individual platforms. These platforms include sites like YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook, among others.

The impact of increased use of social media and screentime is a growing concern and we have seen a large increase in use since the COVID-19 pandemic. While the research on the connection between media, screentime, and mental health is not yet comprehensive, there are some things that we do know about the impacts of technology and social media, and some identified strategies that we can use to limit any potential harm.

The Good and Bad of Social Media and Internet Access

Social media use and accessibility to the internet open the doors to a world full of information, both positive and negative. The way that we navigate the internet and social media likely has a large impact on the resulting benefits or harms that come from our use. It's quite possible that there are things to benefit from, primarily in the way of social connection and exposure to educational information.

Online, some kids and teens can access social connections and feelings of community with others who share identities, abilities, and specific interests, in ways that they may not be able to offline. Safe, online relationships and interactions with diverse peers can provide opportunities for learning and self-expression, which has been found to have positive impacts on self-reported well-being. For many kids and adolescents who hold marginalized identities, the support they might find in online friendships and communities can reduce stress they experience throughout their daily life. For example, some studies have shown that the use of social media can support the mental well-being of LGBTQ+ youth by enabling peer connection, identity development and understanding, and social support. Another study found that 7 out of 10 adolescent girls of color reported that social media helps them to feel more accepted and like they have people to support them through tough times. Generally, social media can be a great way to stay in touch with long-distance family members or friends, promoting a sense of community and belonging in users.

When used appropriately, social media and the internet can also be a great tool for learning and growing or developing interests. Online, kids and teens can engage with educational resources on their topics of interest through news sites, YouTube, shows and documentaries on streaming platforms, blogs, and many other sources. Some sites may even encourage adolescents to work on their own creative products and share them with the world. They can make music videos on TikTok, sell crafts on Etsy, or write their own blogs about cooking, book reviews, or any interest that they hold.

If your child is engaging with the internet in these positive ways, you may see them benefitting from their time well spent on social media. On the other hand, we are aware of some ways that social media and technology use can introduce potential harm to our kid’s well-being. These identified risk factors fall into two main categories: harmful content exposure and excessive use.

Harmful Content Exposure

The internet harbors a wide range of content. While a lot of it can be appropriate for kids and teens, there will always be information out there that can cause harm by exposing kids or teens to violence, dangerous acts or ideas, and individuals with harmful intentions. Social media creates an enhanced and largely unfiltered way for people around the world to share information with each other, and not all people will have good intentions, or will post responsibly. If kids or teens are looking for it, they may be able to easily access information on self-harm strategies, ways to complete suicide, harmful messaging on body image and promotional information on disordered eating, among other things. For example, social comparison through social media has been associated with body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. One study asked teens between the ages of 13 to 17 about the impact of social media on their body image, and almost half (46%) expressed that it makes them feel worse about themselves.

Many sites may also expose kids and teens to hate based content. One study found that about 64% of adolescents reported being “often” or “sometimes” exposed to hate-based content, including racist, sexist, and political content, as well as cyberbullying from peers online.

Social media, and some anonymous communication websites, can also be platforms that allow for people to engage in predatory behaviors. The ability to be anonymous on the internet, and to contact anyone else on platforms, clears the way for people with malicious intentions to target children and adolescents. Reports from one study identified that approximately 6 in 10 adolescent girls note being contacted by a stranger on social media in an inappropriate way. Additionally, we know that young girls and transgender youth are at highest risk for harassment and abuse online.

Excessive Use

Technology and social media are almost always accessible to kids and teens growing up in our tech-based world, which makes it hard to resist engaging with throughout the day. Social media platforms, and even video/iPhone games are designed to keep users coming back as frequently as possible. Things like push notifications, infinite scroll platforms, short video clips, “like” notifications, and curated feeds for users maximize engagement by creating small habits that have immediate rewards associated with them. The more we use these features, the more we are driven to come back for the feeling we get in the moment afterwards. In fact, one recent study found that around a third of social media use can be linked to self-control challenges and habit formations. Many teens may even feel addicted to social media and giving it up can feel almost impossible.

Excessive use of social media has been linked to sleep problems, attention difficulties, and depressive symptoms. Social media use can be especially problematic at nighttime, as it impacts the individual’s ability to get to sleep on time and use of screens right before bed is linked to poor sleep quality and shortened sleep duration. Poor sleep has also been linked to an increase in depressive symptoms in teenagers, including suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Social media use has also been shown to increase feelings of exclusion, and specifically, the fear of missing out. Having constant access to peers’ lives, and information on their social engagements creates an easy avenue for social comparison. For many adolescents, this comparison and resulting belief that others are benefitting from experiences they are not, has been linked to increased depression and anxiety.

Emerging Challenges with Technology

A recent and growing concern about developing technology is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) by our youth in schools. Tools like ChatGPT, an AI chatbot, uses natural language processing to create human-like dialogue. A user can enter a prompt, and the chatbot will provide responses in the form that the user requests. While a tool like this can be useful for many, there are concerns about the use of ChatGPT and other AI tools for students.

If a student is using AI to complete homework assignments, like writing short answer responses, completing a math problem, or summarizing readings, they may be missing out on valuable learning and skill development opportunities. With the use of AI tools, independent work can become less intensive for the user since they can outsource much of the content development. Additionally, there are concerns that consistent use of AI will lead to a lack of critical thinking and even creativity in students, since the ease of generating text with AI is more attractive than taking the time to develop their own ideas and original work.

While AI tools hold value for the future of content development, there is immense risk in students and youth relying too heavily on AI to take on the burden of more intensive work for them. Work with your child, their school, and their teachers to understand when the use of AI in schoolwork is acceptable, and when it is appropriate to set limits in the pursuit of supporting your child’s growth.

Impact on Mental Health

While more research needs to be done on the direct impact that social media and technology use has on mental health, research so far suggests that harmful content exposure and excessive use provides primarily negative impacts on mental health for kids and teens. A U.S. study found that teens who spent more than 3 hours per day on social media faced almost double the risk for mental health challenges than their peers, especially for symptoms of depression and anxiety. Recent studies have also identified concerns that children and teens who already struggle with mental health symptoms are at higher risk for experiencing the negative effects on mental health that social media may entail.

Want to learn more?


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