Mental health

Kids and Social Media: The Impact on Mental Health and What Parents and Caregivers Can Do About It

With a generation of children growing up on social media, an expert explains how parents and caregivers can balance their child’s sense of belonging with safe screen time and social media practices

NBC Universal, Inc.

With a generation of children growing up on social media, an expert explains how parents and caregivers can balance their child’s sense of belonging with safe screen time and social media practices.

Michael Mancusi is a licensed independent clinical social worker and chief behavioral health officer at East Boston Neighborhood Health Center. He joins NBC10 Boston’s JC Monahan during Mental Health Awareness month to discuss the impact social media has on our kids and what parents and caregivers should look out for.

Technology and screen time, and their potential impacts on developing minds, have long been a source of concerns for researchers, doctors and parents.

Key Issues

According to data from a 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center, some of the key issues parents of teenagers ages 13-17 are concerned about include children being exposed to explicit content or wasting too much time on these sites. They are also concerned their kids could be distracted from homework, share too much about their personal life online, feel pressured to act a certain way, or get harassed or bullied.

Mancusi says the most important thing parents can do is be aware and take action if they see any concerning behaviors, especially if they have urgent concerns about their child's mental health.

He adds that it’s important to accept that social media has become part of daily life at a younger and younger age, and it can have benefits to understand how to navigate and enjoy it. But, he says, children and teenagers are impressionable and may not understand what effects certain habits could have in the long term.

Finding Balance

“I think there are beneficial uses. It does give teens an opportunity to feel like they belong, to be part of a network, to have immediate contact with their friends," he said.

That needs to be balanced with the potential negative effects, which Mancusi says can range from isolation to an inability to understand in-person social queues like body language and facial gestures to isolation and lack of interest in other activities. He also expressed concern about filters and image-altering technology that can affect a child's perception of what is expected or acceptable.

“This is the first generation that does at least 50% of their social skill development on an app. That's an experiment. And so they're not learning all those nuances of, you know, facial expression, you know, gestures, body language, all those things that we need to learn in order to build deep, lasting relationships,” he explained.

Mancusi says overuse can fuel these problems. One thing he suggests to parents is to give their children alternative ways to spend their time, rather than trying to take away social media entirely. He also said that in his experience, children are often willing to respond to a conversation about their use and are often self-aware enough to acknowledge if they have a problem. But they may still struggle to control the issue.

The Pew survey found that 54% of teens say it would be difficult for them to give up social media, and 36% say they spend too much time on it.

"I've had young people in my clinic come and say to me, I, I actually deleted it, but a week later I downloaded again and the same thing happened. So they don't have that judgment yet. They don't have that containment. They need us to help them figure out what's sensible," Mancusi said.

What Parents Can Do

"So one of the other things I recommend to parents is we're not going to do subtraction here. We're not going to take it away. We're going to try to contain it in a reasonable, negotiated manner. And then we're going to do addition. And what I mean by that is family time outings, sports, the arts, the things that involve engaging interpersonally."

Mancusi adds that parents need to be ready to ask their children hard questions, especially if they have concerns about bullying or harassment.

"I think we've done a pretty good job in our society with bullying awareness in school. But this is a huge un-refereed technology and that is going on. We have to be willing to ask our children and ask them again. Are you sure? You know, I have heard so much about this going on at your school. Let's talk about this. Would you tell me if that were happening to you?"

Mancusi also believes that parents should embrace primary care when it comes to mental and behavioral health and not wait until a problem has become so significant it's a crisis. He cautions that there has been a "skyrocketing" increase in depression and anxiety in youth, with one in three to one in four children having diagnosable anxiety or depression. He said if parents or caregivers are having trouble finding help, they can visit one of 25 Community Behavioral Health Centers in Massachusetts, which are set up to act as a "front door" to access mental and behavioral health care.

"The CBHCs are located all over the state and each region providing crisis evaluation leading to a disposition of the care that's needed, and then getting children and families engaged in the level of care they need. It's not perfect," he says. "We're going to have this here and then we have a whole continuity of care across the life cycle for behavioral health here. But there is a front door now," he explains.

For more information on the Community Behavioral Health Centers, click here.

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