Editor’s Note: Dr. Neha Chaudhary, child and adolescent psychiatrist, is chief medical officer of BeMe Health and faculty at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
The holiday season is right around the corner, and for many that means more time spent with family across generations. Before you demand that your children drop their smartphone to talk meaningfully about gratitude at the Thanksgiving dinner table, take a moment to consider what you’re asking.
When it comes to generational divides, it’s hard to find one bigger than technology use, especially social media. How to talk to teens about technology use (and reduce it) is one of the most common questions I get from parents in my child and adolescent psychiatry clinic.
Adults worry that technology overuse is taking a toll on their children’s mental health. For teens, it’s more complicated. Whether it’s social media, gaming or online chat forums, the digital landscape has become fundamentally integrated into their everyday life.
Faced with that conflict, I typically ask parents and caregivers not only how much their kids are using technology, but how they are using it and how that use is impacting their headspace. Once we know the answers to those questions, we collaborate to find solutions.
Rather than try to fight the use and engage in a tug-of-war, families can focus ahead of the holiday season on how they use social media. Knowing that some social media use negatively impacts mental health, families can together can shift to a social media strategy that supports teens’ social and emotional health.
It’s important that parents and caregivers spend some time in careful reflection in partnership with teens. (Parents, don’t try to do this alone.) Here’s my four-step framework to help navigate this new space together and make productive, healthy changes:
Step 1: Help teens evaluate how they are using social media
Talk about the quality of the content your children are consuming online. Is it generally positive, like inspirational quotes or pictures of cute babies? Or is it negative, like politically charged news or memes that make fun of certain groups? All content is not created equal, and without intentionally and critically evaluating which bucket the content falls in, it’s harder to figure out what to consume more of versus less.
Your teens’ pattern of use is just as important. Do they typically find themselves on social media when they are feeling happy, down, bored or angry? Do they scroll through social media to distract themselves from uncomfortable feelings or to avoid doing homework that’s been piling up into a mountain? What happens when they step away from their device?
By asking teens to reflect on the link between real life and when they pick up their phone to open Instagram or TikTok, you might identify an underlying problem that needs more attention, like anxiety. Or you could help them identify better ways to cope with uncomfortable feelings, like calling a friend or listening to music.
Step 2: Ask how social media use is serving them
This is where it’s time to ask your teens to be real with you about the impact of social media on their mental health. Ask them how they feel after scrolling on social media. Do they notice a difference in how they feel when they view one type of content, like puppy videos or body-positive posts, versus another, like heavily edited and unrealistic photos of influencers or content from someone in a negative headspace?
Often, teens will admit that the thought of breaking from social media makes them incredibly anxious at first. But when they do separate themselves from their device, they end up feeling better. It’s not that surprising, as taking time away from social media altogether can help you stay present in the moment in a way that’s helpful for your mood and overall mental health.
The more links teens can make on their own between how they use social media and how that usage pattern serves them or makes them feel, the more likely they will be to want to make changes for themselves, if it’s on their terms.
Step 3: Encourage teens to identify the changes they want
Ask your teens if they want to change the way they are using social media right now, and if so, how. Perhaps they have identified that they want to spend less time on social media. Maybe they have noticed that they feel badly about themselves after comparing their lives to those of others, and they wish the content left them feeling better about themselves instead of worse. Whatever the changes are, it’s a good time to catalog them intentionally and set specific goals.
It can be especially helpful to focus on what they would get out of the changes. Are they looking to gain some time back for more offline activities? Are they looking to boost their mood or self-esteem? Are they looking for more authentic connection and experiences?
It’s critical that your teen set their goals for themselves. It’s how they will buy into the process and likely follow through with any changes.
Step 4: List and commit to the steps needed to get there
Now is the time to get concrete. What is it that needs to happen for your teens to achieve their stated goals? Do they need to take screen-time breaks, or place restrictions on their phone? Does the phone need to go into a basket at dinner, or be left in the common space when it’s bedtime?
Or maybe they are happy with how much time they are spending online but want to focus on what they are consuming. What accounts that make them feel bad do they need to unfollow or block, and what types of accounts will they look to follow? How will they approach spring-cleaning their feed? Will they replace five negative accounts with five positive ones per day, or do they have another method they’d like to try?
Some teens have noted that disabling comments, making their accounts private, or keeping their social media use within certain bounds, like particular hours of the day, are helpful tricks to regaining some peace of mind.
With a generation of digital natives sitting across the Thanksgiving table from generations who grew up solely playing outside with the next-door neighbors, it can feel like both parties are coming from different planets when it comes to topics like technology and social media.
Rather than try to fight where teens are coming from, accepting that technology use is part of their way of life, and instead focusing on quality over quantity, will allow for more productive conversations. That’s the space in which real, healthy change can happen.