Future proof: how to tackle your child’s social media stress

7 minutes

Help your children to manage the effects of social media

Recent stories and studies have linked an increase in mental health concerns among children to social media use.

In one recent study, over a third of young people said that social media has a negative impact on their self-esteem. So, what can concerned parents do to help their kids? In this article, experts look at how parents can support their children and improve their child’s wellbeing.

  • What effect can social media have on your children’s health?
  • Engage with your children’s social media habits, advise experts
  • Use technology to set limits and establish healthy boundaries
In the first part of our new life insurance series looking at the health and wellbeing issues that could affect our children, Abigail Butcher talks to experts and parents about the issues surrounding social media for children and the potential solutions.

The Guardian recently revealed a sharp increase in sleep disorder admissions among under-16s – from 6,520 in 2012-13 to 9,429 in 2017[1] – an increase that many of the experts they interviewed put down to social media and technology use.

Even Facebook has said that engagement with social media poses a risk to mental health, pointing to a study from February 2017 that found that using Facebook was associated with worse mental health.

The government has responded by promising to appoint up to 8,000 new staff to new Mental Health Support Teams who, among other responsibilities, will be tasked with monitoring unhealthy online habits in children at schools around the UK.

But what about at home? What can parents do to tackle the effect their child’s social media use could be having on their mental wellbeing?

What can parents do about social media and stress?

Watch out for signs that your child might be struggling with stress. According to Dr Adam Abdelnoor, child psychologist and director of the charity Inaura, symptoms in children include headaches, worrying, complaining of stomach aches and sickness that comes and goes.

‘Find a way to engage in what they’re doing with social media and digital technology,’ says Adam, ‘whether that’s playing an online game with them or getting them to show you what they are doing and posting.’

Adam also says it’s important to talk and listen to children, to treat them like they’re on an equal level.

This is the approach parents of three Emily and Rob are taking with their children Evie (14), Woody (11) and Ben (8).

‘All three have Instagram accounts – we do check what they’re up to and chat about what they might have seen or what they post, but so far any friends they have are approved by us,’ explains Emily.

‘Ben uses his account to post pictures of his drawings and beloved dogs, Woody (a keen football player) posts his sporting achievements, and both boys follow sports players and accounts of friends. Evie never posts unless to say happy birthday to a friend, but when she first created a profile, she posted a photo of her looking very made up – I discussed this with her and she has not posted anything like it since.’

A recent survey by The Children's Society found that the self-esteem of girls is especially impacted by their use of social media. Over a third (38%) of young people said that social media has a negative impact on the way they feel about themselves, while almost half (46%) of girls stated this.

A lot of this impact comes from the peer pressure they feel to present themselves and their lives as perfect, according to a survey by Girlguiding. Over a third (35%) of girls aged 11–21 ‘say that comparing themselves and their lives to others was one of their major worries about the amount of time spent online’.

By talking to their children early, Emily and Rob have encouraged social media use that is less likely to negatively affect them.

What help is out there?

Adam says it’s important to establish clear rules and limits on technology use, such as leaving phones downstairs, or not using iPads until the weekends.

There are also apps to help parents monitor and control their child’s activity online – including FamilyTimeDinnerTime and Net Nanny – all of which allow parents to set time restrictions on devices and what children can see. iPhones now have a feature called Screen Time that allows you to monitor how much time you spend on your phone, which you can use to monitor your children’s use, too.

There are also a number of useful online resources. NSPCC runs Net Aware, which is a good place to start, says Adam – it’s particularly good for helping parents learn about social media if they’re unfamiliar with it. Then there’s eAware, which is a tool that assesses pupils’ online risk and then provides both pupils and teachers with resources to help encourage good practice.

‘We have more than 150 schools and 20,000 pupils signed up to our programme, and some very useful data about online behaviour,’ says eAware’s product development director Andrew Rostron.

Remember, social media is not all bad

‘No-one, child or adult, is struggling with social media simply because of their presence on it,’ reassures Adam. ‘It may be the context in which problems become obvious or apparent.’

Social media isn’t set to go away any time soon so, when used wisely and within proportion, think of it as a great way for children to engage with each other and network. And, when monitored properly, it can even provide some reward and stress relief away from concentrating on school work and revision (see our article How can you help your kids feel confident about their exams).

In our ‘Future proof’ series, we’ll be covering subjects such as pollution, gaming and changing cultural norms, so keep tuned!