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Ask a Pediatrician: Social Media and Mental Health

Published on May 11, 2022

We recently asked parents about concerns regarding their children and social media. Dr. Devon Ward, a Valley Children’s pediatrician at Sky Park Pediatrics in Fresno, answered these questions and provided her insight.


Dear Doctor: How do you impress upon kids that what is shown is highly curated and not real?
- Sincerely, Substance Over Style

It’s important to teach your kids early on that there’s a big difference between the internet and reality. Parents should call attention to edited content like movies and advertisements when their children are exposed to it at an early age. This talk should continue once their kids are older and exposed to social media. Just like in Hollywood, most people post pictures and videos that are highly filtered and edited. People like to post their best pictures from the angles that make them look their best. In addition, most people post their happiest moments, like vacations and special celebrations. They often leave out the sad or boring parts of their life. Be sure to frequently remind your child of that and check in with them to see how social media makes them feel. If they keep leaving Instagram wishing that they had a different life or a different body, you should discuss this with them further and consider a social media break. Peer-to-peer comparison is a normal part of teenage development, which is why our children must frequently be reminded that online content is not reality and therefore it is not something that they should compare themselves to.


Dear Doctor: How do you teach kids that the words they use online have an impact on others?
- Sincerely, Sticks, Stones, and Phones

Parents need to make sure their children understand the importance of only typing words online that they would be completely comfortable saying to someone in person. Encourage them to read what they write before posting or sending something. Stress the importance of treating people how they would want to be treated. Remind them that what they put online can stay there forever and it can change how others see them. They should want their “online image” to be that of a kind person, not a cyberbully. Instruct them to notify an adult if they see someone being bullied or threatened on social media.


Dear Doctor: How many hours should my child be allowed to spend on social media before it begins to impact their mental health?
– Sincerely, On the Clock

Some studies show that more than two hours of total screen time per day may be linked to obesity and mental health issues. When planning your media use, it is best to acknowledge that every child is different and the way they spend their time on social media can make a huge impact. For example, are they mindlessly scrolling through a feed looking at images that make them feel insecure? Or are they using the time to directly message and emotionally connect with uplifting friends? Either way, it’s up to you as the parent to decide how much time is allowed and then stick to this time limit without wavering. Setting time limits from the start and staying consistent is key. Make sure that they still have enough time for:

  • Homework
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Exercise
  • In-person socialization
  • Sleep

It is also important to make sure that your child knows how to separate from their devices. Turning off notifications or banners from social media apps can help keep your teen from constantly checking their phone. Make sure that dinner time is device free and always keep devices out of your child’s room overnight. Also, remember that we are role models for our children and they pay attention to how often we as parents are using social media and electronic devices.


Dear Doctor: What's the best way to monitor my kids without them feeling they are being helicopter parented?
– Sincerely, Mother, not Big Brother

It is important that your child understands that in order to have access to social media, they need to be monitored closely. Make it clear that you trust your child and have faith in them; however, you know how dangerous the internet is and you want to keep them safe. Candidly discuss the dangerous aspects of social media such as exposure to inappropriate content, online predators and cyberbullying. Also, talk about the big emotions that come with social media that can lead to mental health issues. Say that because of these dangers, you need to place parental controls and other measures to keep your child safe while staying connected and in tune with their lives. Try to go on social media platforms with your child, showing an interest in what they are doing and who they are talking to. If you choose to use a phone monitoring app, such as Bark, make sure your child is aware. You do not want to secretly monitor their phone or social media platforms. Open communication is key.


Dear Doctor: What are the best ages to let kids onto social media?
– Sincerely, Age Restricted

Children under the age of 13 should not have access to social media. By law, kids have to state that they are 13 or older to create a social media profile, which is due to the fact that platforms are not allowed to collect data on children younger than 13. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that makes decisions, is still developing until children turn 25. It is important to remember that teenage brains are very impressionable and they are still developing self-regulation. It is easier for them to become addicted to social media and form unhealthy habits. Once you introduce and allow social media, it is much harder to go back and take it away. Try not to introduce social media until you think that your child is emotionally ready. Creating rules and expectations from the beginning is so important. Social media is not going anywhere anytime soon, so you must teach your child how to use it as a tool for good with balance and moderation. Consider starting out with smaller amounts of time and then slowly allowing your child to have more time and exposure. By implementing boundaries early, you are teaching them how to self-regulate and safely balance their time spent on social media with all of their other activities.


Dear Doctor: When kids aren't allowed on social media by their parents, they can be outcast by other kids. What's the best way to handle that?
– Sincerely, No Kids Allowed

If you can, try to band together with other parents who are mindful of the negative effects of social media and are actively using limits with their children. Reach out to the parents of your child’s friends and candidly discuss your concerns with social media. When safely able, encourage your child to hang out with their friends in person, instead of online. It may take a lot of work to push off the introduction of social media, causing your child to be very upset in the short term, but press on and remind yourself of the emotional turmoil and issues that you are likely saving your child from in the long term.


About the Author

Dr. Devon Ward is a pediatrician at Sky Park Pediatrics in Fresno, a member of Valley Children’s Primary Care Group. She is committed to advancing awareness of pediatric mental and behavioral health, and believes that by encouraging collaboration with families, doctors can more effectively and compassionately treat the whole patient, prioritizing both mental and physical wellness.