For a child with a mental health diagnosis, social media can be a chance to find a supportive community – a place to talk about their experience and get encouragement. It can also present unique risks. Being aware of these risks can help you decide if and when social media is right for your child.
For all kids with a mental health diagnosis, you should:
- Talk with your child about the risks.
- Agree on a social media plan.
- Look for changes in mood or behavior.
- Engage your child’s therapist.
For kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Social media can be a great way for kids with ADHD to seek out new DIY projects to jump into, or take a deep dive into fascinating topics.
Kids with ADHD may be especially attracted to social media, which is designed to reward our brains and keep us interacting. It can be hard for kids with ADHD to limit their use or take appropriate breaks.
Impulsivity – a tendency to act quickly without thinking about the consequences – can also create problems.
- To help with self-control, help your child set a specific schedule and boundaries for when social media will be used.
- Where possible, limit their feed/people they follow to the ones most important to them.
- Consider setting time limits on the device until your child is able to limit themselves
- Encourage taking a few second pause before taking action.
- Posts are forever – whatever goes online cannot be erased and can impact relationships and prospects for a long time. How will you consider what you’re posting before you post it?
- Social media challenges (such as the Tide Pod Challenge) – frequent on platforms like TikTok – can pull kids into engaging in harmful behaviors. Take a pause and think of the risks and benefits? Who can you talk to before you decide to take on a challenge?
- Consider asking your child to turn off notifications so that they aren’t constantly distracted by posts.
For kids with depression
Kids with depression often feel alone and isolated. They may use social media to seek connections they are missing.
- Social media can increase feelings of depression and loneliness.
- Fear of missing out (FOMO) can be a bigger challenge for kids with depression. Peers and celebrities may make social success seem unrealistically easy.
- It can be easy to access communities that normalize harmful behaviors, including suicidal ideation. For example, there are certain hashtags children can search that lead to posts about self-harm.
- As kids with depression seek connection, the other person may not be who they say they are (also called catfishing). Online safety is especially important for kids with depression, who may be targeted because of their isolation.
- Encourage physical activity, hobbies, and in person time with friends.
- Talk to them about who they follow and how those accounts make them feel about themselves. If certain accounts always make them feel left out or not good enough, they should consider removing them from their feed.
- You may want to monitor their algorithms and hashtags for risky content.
- Make sure kids are not using screens for at least an hour before bedtime.
For kids with anxiety disorders
Social media gives kids a chance to present a curated version of themselves to the world. It’s up to them what images and experiences they share. This can make social media seem more predictable and secure than interacting in the physical world.
- How they’re perceived on social media can be a big concern for anxious kids. They may circle around thoughts about likes and comments for far longer than their friends. It can also create unhealthy patterns of comparing their lives to someone else’s (often unrealistic) curated life.
- Avoidance - Kids who are anxious may feel like online interactions are less scary, so they may focus their time on online friendships. This may mean that they miss opportunities for in-person interactions, which gets in the way of building important social skills and healthy relationships.
- Ask your child, “Does staying online feel safer than talking with kids in real life?” If they say yes, consider encouraging your child to take small steps toward increasing in person interactions. Start with people your child feels safe with and slowly build on that over time.
- If your child has met friends online, encourage them to think about how they can use those same skills to meet friends at school/activities?
For kids with eating disorders or body dysmorphia
With good coping skills and boundaries, kids with eating disorders (unhealthy eating behaviors) or body dysmorphia (repeatedly thinking about real or imagined flaws or problems with their appearance) can find healthy connections on social media. But because of the risks, you may decide that social media is a “no” for right now.
The world of social media is highly visual, and bodies are often present in unrealistic and unattainable ways. Multiple apps help people alter their appearances to look more “ideal,” changing how beauty is perceived.
- Social media algorithms quickly learn what content kids engage with and send more of that content to their social feeds.
- This can make it difficult to manage exposure to images that trigger unhealthy behaviors.
- Kids can easily find communities that emphasize unhealthy behaviors like focusing on physical imperfections, and monitoring calorie intake and weight. This can make it hard to establish new, healthier patterns.
- Talk together about who they follow and how those accounts make them feel.
- For example, if they only follow influencers who post pictures of their bodies or fitness content, they may want to unfollow and look for accounts that are more realistic and encourage body positivity.
- Have regular, ongoing conversations about how they feel about social media, what they are viewing, and how they are setting healthy boundaries and taking breaks.
- Monitor eating and exercise patterns following social media use.
Social media has risks and benefits for all children, but children with a mental health diagnosis may have extra considerations. Having ongoing conversations about social media and how your child is feeling will be important.
And remember, with all mental health diagnoses, support from you and your child’s care team is essential.