Teens and Social Media: When Is it Too Much?

October 11, 2020

A woman looking at a phone

Dr. Max J. Coppes, Physician-in-Chief Renown Children’s Hospital, and Nell J. Redfield Chair of Pediatrics, UNR Med, talks about how much is too much when it comes to teens and social media.

Social apps (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, TikTok, etc.) have become an integral part of most people’s lives. In contrast to traditional media — where one source goes to many receivers — social media operates in a dialogic transmission system. Many sources interact, sometimes simultaneously, with many receivers and provide for superior interactivity between its users.

Not surprisingly, it also plays a significant role in our children’s lives once they are old enough to understand how to access and use these apps. On average, children start exploring social media at around ages 10 to 12. They rapidly discover that electronic communication allows for unique and personalized ways to make and keep friendships. They also use it to develop and expand family ties, get help with homework, share music, art, and experiences, and learn and discover the world.

Social Media and Teens

Surveys suggest that more than 90 percent of teenagers use social media. Additionally, approximately 75 percent have at least one active profile by age 17. Access to social media is greatly facilitated because more than two-thirds of teens have their own mobile devices with internet capabilities, a substantial change relative to previous generations.

The use of social apps can have many positive aspects. But we now also recognize that it can also have negative impacts. The use of hazardous sites or the inherent risks of using social media (identity theft, being hacked, cyber-bullying, etc.) are indeed damaging to children. Any use of hazardous social apps is too much and carries serious hazards.

But what about the use of “normal” and/or “safe” social media? Well, data suggest that too much use of “non-hazardous” apps can indeed affect health.

How Much Do Teens Use Social Media?

First, some basic data. For example, how much do normal teenagers use social media? A study from Pew Research found that more than 50 percent of 13- to 17 year-olds go online several times a day. This quickly increases during the teenage years to more than 70 minutes per day. Teenage girls have the highest usage at just over 140 minutes per day. It is important to recognize that non-school related use of the internet and social media is often beheld by teenagers as important for developing their self-esteem, their acceptance among peers, and their mental health in general.

As parents, we recognize that the use of social media can indeed contribute, in many positive ways, to our children’s growth. At the same time, we also worry about them spending too much time online. We worry about their ability to communicate effectively in face-to-face settings or in writing. Many of us also feel and/or worry that our children are addicted.

Social Media and Addiction

Recent studies suggests that the overuse of social media indeed mirrors addiction. Reports now show that teenagers and college kids experience anxiety when deprived from their connected devices and consequently feel a compulsion to access their social applications. The emotional symptoms they experience are very similar to those seen in substance abuse. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association is considering making internet addition a bonafide diagnosis. Pediatricians therefore encourage limits on the use of social media, a recommendation more easily suggested than accomplished.

So when should a parent consider seeking help? Aside from unhealthy use of these apps (cyber-bullying, sexting, online users asking for sexual relations, etc.), which should always trigger concern, the use of social media for more than 120 minutes per day should trigger parental concern. If you feel unable to address the overuse of social media, contact your pediatrician for help and guidance.

Renown Children’s Hospital

Whether it’s seeing a pediatrician, getting a sports physical or looking for advice, our care is centered around supporting and nurturing patients and families at our many locations. We have pediatricians dedicated to children who have experience recognizing children’s illnesses. They also have knowledge about tests and treatments for young ones to ensure your child gets the best care possible.

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