Sifting Through the Evidence About Teens and Social Media

A major concern of parents for the last decade or so has been the impact of computer usage, gaming and social media on their children. It was confusing though, because it seemed like for every article touting the dangers, there was another implying that everyone was over reacting. One of the things we like to do at Teach One Reach One Ministries is to sift through the actual academic studies on a variety of topics and help parents know the highlights. We believe one of the goals of Christian parenting should be to keep your children as mentally and spiritually healthy as possible so that they will be able to reach their full God given potential.

So what do you need to know about all of this conflicting information out there on all things digital?

  • Someone has finally taken the time to look at a lot of studies closely to find out if there are any patterns. Not every academic study is created equal. Some are well done and others are thrown together to meet an academic or publishing deadline. There are also various types of studies used to obtain different types of information, so certain conclusions can only be accurately drawn from certain types of studies. It’s also important to read past the summary of any study to better understand some of the factors that may result in a particular study getting different results than another similar study. This group took the time to do that and you can read their full article here:
  • Gender plays an important role on how various types of media impact young people. One of the dangers of the current gender denial movement is that it puts young people at risk for things that may have been prevented had their gender been taken into account. For example, social media – and particularly Instagram – have a significant negative impact on teen girls. The impact on teen boys is much less for Instagram, but other studies find they struggle from exposure to violent content and video games.
  • There is a lot of money to be made from having young people addicted to their devices and streaming content, gaming and social media – therefore it is designed to be addictive. This is not some crazy conspiracy theory. There is a science to encouraging addiction and the industry is using that knowledge to hook young people on the various products available to them on devices.
  • Children are meant to participate in play that provides exposure to managed risks and with ever increasing independence encouraged. This type of play is how children learn about the world around them. It also teaches them confidence and problem solving strategies – as well as often giving them opportunities for social interaction. Movement to phones instead of normal play activities also means the develop of children has been hampered because of a resulting reduction in sleep and socializing with friends and relatives.
  • Because they are addicted, taking away or limiting devices will not improve a negative mental state immediately. If you’ve ever watched someone try to stop smoking, it is the same dynamic. Detoxing from devices often results in a worse mental state initially that can last for several weeks. After that time, studies found that mental state usually improved and often significantly.
  • It is often easier to prevent an addiction from starting than breaking one. In general, young people also often respond better to avoiding or curtailing something when they feel it was their decision rather than something imposed upon them. You have to do what is best for your child, however, and that may mean limiting or denying access to anything that is causing your child harm – regardless of whether or not your child is happy about it.
  • Peer usage of devices needs to be understood and cooperation amongst parents and young people in peer groups encouraged. The authors of the study I mentioned in the first point wrote something in passing that they never really revisited. There was a somewhat negative impact if, for example, a teen girl got off Instagram, but her friends did not. They attributed it to a feeling of isolation from their friend group. Obviously, I have no evidence to back up my theory, but it seems quite plausible that if an entire friend group agreed to drop Instagram, they would develop other ways to connect and be healthier from dropping Instagram with not even the slightest negative impact of decreased social imteraction.
  • Depression, anxiety and aggression have been found to have links to digital use. Girls reported a significant increase in depression and anxiety from social media use (particularly Instagram), while boys playing violent video games were found to have increased aggressive behaviors. There doesn’t seem to be any connection between content and other mental health conditions. (Although as we learn more, that could change.)
  • Money is keeping your kids at risk. Did you know the statistical link for the negative impact between Instagram and teen girls with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts is stronger than the link between lead paint and lowered IQ? There is just not a lead paint lobby and paint companies didn’t lose enough money by changing their product to ignore it like the impact of digital content and social media and the money connected to it encourages.
  • Doing what is best for your children will be extremely counter cultural and difficult for many parents – even many Christian parents who are used to counter cultural parenting. If I had a nickel for every parent who told me their kids are different and aren’t impacted negatively by streaming, gaming and social media, I would be rich. Ostrich parenting isn’t good for your children. Pretending something isn’t negatively impacting your children doesn’t mean it isn’t. By the time you realize you are wrong, a lot of damage may have been done to your child.
  • Adults aren’t immune to the negative impact of digital content and social media either. One of the dirty little secrets of academia and academic studies is “publish or perish”. Careers are advanced when studies are published. Which would be published first – a study every parent will want to read about how something may or may not be hurting their child – or a study pointing out how yet another bad adult habit is messing up your life? Just because you are an adult, doesn’t mean you aren’t experiencing the negative impact of constantly looking at your phone. A digital detox may just be wonderful for your entire family.

The evidence is overwhelming. The question is: are you going to protect your children or leave them vulnerable because you are afraid to do the hard part of parenting?

Published by

Thereasa Winnett

Thereasa Winnett is the founder of Teach One Reach One and blogger at Parenting Like Hannah. She holds a BA in education from the College of William and Mary. She has served in all areas of ministry to children and teens for more than thirty years and regularly leads workshops for ministries and churches. She has conducted numerous workshops, including sessions at Points of Light’s National Conference on Volunteering and Service, the National Urban Ministry Conference, Pepperdine Bible Lectures, and Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration. Thereasa lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband Greg, where she enjoys reading, knitting, traveling and cooking.

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