Can social media and gaming cause mental health difficulties?

social media and gaming teenagers and mental health

By Robyn Saffer and Laura Herman, Thinking-Together About Parenting Teens.

One of the biggest complaints from today’s parents/guardians is the amount of time their preteen/teenager is glued to their electronic devices, with social media and video games potentially having a negative effect on mental health.

Some parents/guardians have a very clear firm view that their child is only allowed devices for a limited amount of time, they have their passwords, check their messages/posts and have strict parental controls in place. Others will have a more relaxed view and leave their children to their own ‘devices’. Many parents are increasingly frustrated and have threatened to or actually taken devices away. Whatever your stance is, it is necessary to think carefully about the benefits, dangers and most importantly how to communicate with your pre-teen/teenager.

Many parents and professionals are concerned that there is a link between the use of internet/social media and the rise in teenage mental health problems. Of course, this does not mean online activity will cause a problem for every young person, however none of us can sit back and think “it won’t happen to my child.” Rather, it is important for all parents/guardians to make it their business to be aware of the benefits and dangers and to keep communicating with their child.

The benefits of the internet and social media

There are many benefits to the internet and social media. It is important to recognise that for many of our children, the social aspect of gaming and communicating via different social media platforms enhances their life. We all benefit from instant access to information, and rely on apps in our daily lives. We can keep a track of our child’s whereabouts, stay in touch with friends all over the world and have group chats, which of course for lots of us was crucial during the pandemic.

For many teenagers, use of the internet, gaming and social media is positive. Used safely, young people can connect with their peer group and increase their confidence by taking part in activities, as well as finding information that normalises their own experiences. It can also be a good distraction from family and school stresses.

The risks of the internet and social media

It is normal for a preteen/teenager to experiment and be curious about themselves, their changing body and their sexual identity, but they can also feel confused and wonder if they are “normal”. Add to this, other life stresses and it’s easy to see how an adolescent could be struggling.

Without guidance from a supportive adult, and good relationships with their family/friends, a young person is more at risk of finding harmful online relationships and searching for information to reassure themselves. Unfortunately, algorithms analyse our searches and can draw any of us deeper into a potentially dangerous subject.

Psychotherapist, Dr Graham Music, has written extensively about how the overuse of the internet, social media and gaming on mental health, specifically the areas of the brain associated with the reward and pleasure systems. The brain receives feel-good chemicals from activities such as pornography, gaming, “likes” on social media apps and so on. These feel-good chemicals can be used as a distraction or to block stressful feelings, which relied upon too often, can lead to bad habits or in extreme cases, addictions.

Sometimes messages received late at night can be distressing. Some teenagers wake up in the middle of the night to check their phones. Imagine hearing a friend is having a difficult time or someone writes something mean to you just as you are going to bed – we know we would find it hard to fall asleep.

Lastly, too much exposure to porn and inappropriate tv shows/video apps can negatively influence young people’s view of relationships, sex and how they are “supposed” to look. Sometimes, pre-teens/teenagers can be exposed to material that they don’t want to see and can feel embarrassed to discuss it with you.

The role of parents/guardians

It is impossible to be completely in control of what your child can view online. If they can’t view inappropriate material on their own screens, they are likely to see something inappropriate via one of their peers.

Therefore, the principles of listening to your child and setting boundaries are important to ensure your children are using their electronics safely to help them thrive. Just like you trained your child to cross the road in stages and slowly let them go further afield, you need to guide your child whilst they learn about the benefits and risks of using the internet/gaming/social media.

Tips for parents

  • There are some useful websites at the end of this blog, which give information about different social media apps, how to educate your child on keeping safe online and how to monitor/restrict your child’s online activity.
  • Adults are role models. Think about your own activity. Do you put your phone away when your child speaks to you? How much of your life do you publicise? Are you posting photos of your children without asking their permission? Are you ensuring your children can’t see any material you have viewed which is inappropriate for them?
  • Set family rules, such as no phones at meal times.
  • Set age-appropriate boundaries and watch out for changes in your child’s behaviour.
  • Discuss the risks of social media and gaming on mental health with your preteens/teenagers. Find out what information your child’s school teaches as this is a good place to start a conversation.
  • Encourage them to follow aspirational/inspirational posts, rather than things that make them feel worse about themselves.
  • Stay interested and curious. Encourage them to talk about their gaming, the apps they use and their socialising online.
  • Listen to their perspective in order to negotiate boundaries with them. Be aware that their friends might hear you when you are demanding them to get offline.
  • Let your child know that they can come to you to discuss their worries, even if some might feel embarrassing for both of you.
  • Join in with their videos and say hi to their friends when they ask you!
  • Access to gaming and social media before bed affects sleep. Charging them outside of the bedroom is an important rule.
  • Lastly, encourage your child to do activities with you or their friends away from their devices.

Further reading: Children, Technology and Healthy Development by Catherine Knibbs

Useful websites:

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