Pre-Teen Mental Health and Social Media Use: 5 Tips for Parents

mental health social media

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It’s widely understood that mental health is a key part of overall health, particularly for young people.

In the recent Advisory on Youth Mental Health, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy advises that individuals as well as systems need to shift to address the public health crisis of young people’s mental health.

Prior to the pandemic, one in four people under the age of 18 had a mental health disorder, making mental health disorders the most common disease of childhood. It is more common than the combined rates of other diseases like cancer and diabetes. Globally, rates of depression and anxiety have doubled in youth during the pandemic.

Technology use has increased along with the rate of mental health disorders, causing many to connect the two.

Nearly all teens have access to a smartphone, providing constant access to the Internet. Every week, the majority of 12-to 17- year-olds use YouTube (72%); TikTok (63%); Instagram (57%), and Snapchat (54%).

This common use is happening while recent reports question if social media use causes depression in teens. There are coincident alarming trends, such as the rise in the use of hashtags on Instagram relating to non-suicidal self-injury.

To be sure, some social media companies are attempting to address concerns, such as Instagram recently releasing a “Take a Break” notification. Yet, many parents and caregivers want to know how they can protect their children’s mental health in online spaces, from Instagram to TikTok, YouTube and more.

As a pediatric psychologist and digital mental health researcher, I know technology use is not necessarily bad. In a study of over 2,000 children ages 10 to 15, more technology and social media use was not linked to poor mental health.

Children who texted more felt less depressed than those who texted less. Additionally, not all social media is the same; Gen Z thinks of TikTok as “funnier and more positive” than other platforms.

As the Surgeon General’s recent Advisory points out, social media companies need to be transparent with their data so everyone can better understand what is happening to young users—positive and not.

Dr. Murthy recommends a focus on quality vs. quantity on social media and provides a series of questions families can ask to reflect about their children’s online time.

In the wake of the Advisory, other guides for teens and their parents have also emerged. However, parents of pre-teens (9-12 years old) are also in need of guidance as their children are first getting introduced to some of these social media platforms and establishing online habits that could last through adulthood.

With holiday and end of year breaks increasing the amount of time at home, now is the time to start new habits with pre-teens; even if they do not have their own social media accounts yet—their friends might. Beyond ensuring the use of social media safety tips, here are five things to put into practice for pre-teens, which will be helpful whether they are on social media or not.

1. Look for Changes In Behavior

Parents and caregivers are experts on their kids and can use this expertise to look for changes in mood, sleep, eating, or activity. The Cleveland Clinic recommends that parents specifically look out for irritability or worries; sleeping or eating more or less; low energy levels, lack of interest in fun activities; or avoiding going to school or other normal activities.

2. Schedule Regular Activities Together

At least once a week, take a walk, go for a drive, play a game or cook a meal together with your child. Make a jar of “You & Me” activity ideas to choose from each week. Multiple studies show that quality time spent with parents and caregivers is associated with better academic achievement and mental health for pre-teens. Having these set times will also make it easier to check-in if you do notice a change–and make it easier for them to bring up things when they need to.

3. Don’t Expect Them to Know What To Ask

“You can come talk to me about anything.” This statement is great in theory, but puts a lot of pressure on children to know where and when there are problems that need to be discussed. For social media use, try bringing up things that you do for yourself, such as checking-in about feelings after a few minutes of scrolling through social media. If you’re not feeling good, that might be a sign to put your phone down and try something else. This list of activity ideas from the Aims Center at the University of Washington can be helpful.

4. Set Clear Expectations, Provide A Rationale, and Stay Curious

Likely when children were younger, there was a set bedtime and routine each night. While it might look different, older children and pre-teens might still need some structure to keep similar healthy routines. Try setting expectations around times to be online, such as having a set time to shut down online use before bed or keeping screens out of your child’s bedroom. For a way to create expectations that align with your family’s lifestyle and values, has resources to help you create a personalized family media use plan. Once you have chosen your online expectations, briefly and clearly share why you want to try technology rules in the house. If your child pushes back, ask about the reason behind their protest—they may have valid reasons you can problem solve together.

5. Compare This To Physical Health Check-Ins

If a child complained of a sore arm after baseball practice, it’s not likely there would be a problem talking to them about it. Mental health is health—asking about feeling sad –or happy, after spending time online is akin to asking your child about how their body is feeling after baseball practice. The more you practice asking about feelings after being online, the more it will become routine. The Child Mind Institute has a list of sample questions and ways to ask about feelings.

Online and in real life protecting and repairing the mental health of the youth we know and love will take work at all levels. But it is worth the effort.

As part of our “You Said It” Op-Ed series, we invite contributors to submit their opinion pieces. Have a submission? Contact us here.

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colleen shields

Colleen Stiles-Shields, Ph.D., is a pediatric psychologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Rush University Medical Center and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

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