What Social Media Is Doing To Your Teenage Patients

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There’s no such thing as a ‘favorite’ type of patient to treat for the majority of healthcare providers. Everyone with an ailment or an issue deserves treatment, and that treatment should be handed out on an even-handed basis. That being said, there’s always something particularly upsetting about dealing with children or teenagers dealing with health problems. Children should be out playing and enjoying their youth free of the stresses and strains that come with being an adult, and it’s sad when they’re not able to do that. 

Unfortunately, it’s becoming ever-more obvious that something that teenagers like to indulge in more than most is also becoming a source of some of their most commonly-seen issues. We are talking, of course, about the use of social media. It’s been feared for a long time that too much social media use can have a negative impact on the health of our young people. Last year we had those fears confirmed when a peer-reviewed study confirmed that excessive social media use and depression in teenagers are inexorably connected

The study took place in England, but there’s no reason to assume that the issues that young social media users face in England are any different to the issues than young social media users face in the United States of America, such are the similarities between the countries. The most obvious problem is bullying. Trolling is nothing new, and anyone who’s been on the internet for longer than a cup of coffee has been trolled before. Inadequate cowards hiding behind computer screens say things that they would never dare to say in the real world, and not enough is done to stop it from happening. Trolls have been ruining the internet for the average user for years, but their effect on a still-developing young mind is more pronounced than it is on a fully-grown adult. An adult usually knows to disregard the cruel words trolls say. An impressionable teenager all-too-often takes them to heart. 

Even if a young person isn’t being trolled, the time they spend on social media could be having a seriously detrimental impact on their sleep patterns – and young minds need their sleep even more than adult minds do. This doesn’t happen by accident – as has been noted previously, the ‘pull to refresh’ method of news feeds on social media has been designed in the same way that the spin functions of games on online slots websites work, and for the same reasons. An online slots game only makes money if there’s someone there playing it here, and so every aspect of it is designed to make a player spin or roll again. Facebook and Twitter make their money by selling advertising, and so they want to keep people scrolling for the same reasons. A user pulls, releases, and gets a ‘jackpot’ in the shape of a new post or a new notification. The players on online slots websites are adults – they know what they signed up for. Children and teenagers aren’t and don’t. 

The study we linked to earlier clearly showed that the more often a teenager checks social media, the more anxious and distressed they’re likely to feel. There is a combination of reasons for this. They see their friends doing things without them, and they feel left out. They see someone else doing something that they can’t, and they feel envious and unworthy. Someone they don’t like says something unpleasant, and they’re hurt by it. As much as they pretend to be adults, their senses and sensibilities are still developing, and they feel things on a much deeper level than most adults do. The study shows that the anxiety issues are worse in teenage girls than it is in teenage boys. 

While it’s relatively easy to identify the problems, it’s harder to identify solutions. Social media itself isn’t the issue – it’s the way in which other people use social media, and the amount of time that young people spend on social media. If you find yourself trying to assist a young person who has depression or mental health issues that appear to relate to social media use, the difficulty you face is that you’re unlikely to be able to achieve anything just by speaking to them. You’re going to try to take their mobile phone, tablet, or laptop away from them, and it’s unlikely that they’re going to want to do so voluntarily. Where it’s possible to do so, you need to be having a conversation with the teenager’s parents. 

There are a number of things that a parent might be able to do to limit the amount of time that their children are spending on social media. They can insist that mobile phones and electronic devices are left downstairs when children go to bed. They can install apps on phones that limit screen time on other apps or force the phone to shut down at an agreed time, starting up again at an agreed time the following morning. There are even some parental control apps that will disable the majority of a phone’s functions other than calling and texting for the entire time that a child is at school, so they have the advantage of still being able to contact them in emergencies, but can relax safe in the knowledge that they’re not exposing themselves to harmful content on social media. 

You probably remember being a teenager yourself. Because of that, you know the last thing you would have welcomed is anybody trying to tell you what to do with your possessions, or what you could look at on the internet (if the internet even existed when you were a teenager). That makes conversations like these difficult to have, but they need having anyway. We can’t allow our teenagers to sleepwalk into a mental health crisis purely because we feel awkward about asking them to stay away from Facebook every once in a while. Teenage depression and teenage mental health issues are too important to allow that to happen. That means parents – with the assistance of doctors and healthcare professionals – sometimes have to take control. Even if it means we end up with a sulking teenager on our hands.