Why Media Overload Could Be Harming Your Adolescent’s Mental Health
Takeaway: Adolescents with unfiltered media access are regularly exposed to inappropriate content and are at risk for developing physical, mental health, and addiction-related problems. The solution? Audit your child’s online life and set up fair, transparent, and enforceable rules for using the internet.
Adolescents are now exposed to more news and public opinion than at any other time in history.
Electronic devices have become such a huge part of our lives that teenagers are constantly plugged into social media, news, and entertainment feeds. And this has never before been the case. Older millennials (and earlier generations) only had TV, newspapers, and magazines to explore. But now, children can use their phones to access almost anything – e.g., TikTok, blogs, YouTube videos, text message updates and more.
This exposure is great because it gives adolescents new opportunities.
All this information and access gives teens today a chance to be well-informed. It takes seconds to look up something on the internet that would have taken hours (and a trip to the local library) a few decades ago. In fact, social media gives teens news updates even if they’re not actively looking for them. So, children are permanently immersed in an information-rich environment that rapidly upskills them in key areas like health, nutrition, physical fitness, productivity, and more.
But unchecked media access can also be harmful. For instance, it exposes adolescents to inappropriate content.
Just because something is newsworthy, it doesn’t mean adolescents and young children should be watching it. For instance, even the tamest news sources will almost certainly have stories on subjects like substance abuse and social violence – behaviours that younger children might naively consider experimenting with. And the jarring content can subtly work on an adolescent’s subconscious for days. Also, many internet news sites often have a ‘comments’ section, they can expose your child to unsafe adults, extremist viewpoints, and harmful cyberbullies.
Online media can also be highly addictive.
Aside from not being child-friendly, online media sites and feeds are designed to draw users in – giving adolescents little dopamine hits as she surfs the stories. And this can lead to a media addiction – especially when social media blurs the lines between chatting with friends and getting, say, the latest celebrity news updates. So, unsupervised children can spend massive chunks of their day switching between media, socialising, and online gaming with no designated endpoint. This is especially problematic for gifted children who might do well at school (and so don’t get noticed) but are still addicted to the internet.
Further, continually scrolling their feeds tends to detach adolescents from day-to-day living.
A side-effect of internet addiction is that adolescents don’t get enough face-to-face interaction. Their virtual world built around social media feeds might seem shiny and attractive, but it isn’t real. It shows the worst news stories (as the milder ones don’t engage viewers) and the best-looking people living large, fun-filled lives. It’s an artificial world that rewards ‘views’ and ‘likes,’ neglecting the meaningful interactions adolescents must have to become grounded adults. Children need regular interactions with actual people to develop basic attention, thinking, social, and language skills. In particular, there are nuances to socialising (e.g., reading body language and facial expressions) that children can’t practice online.
Finally, living in an online bubble can affect an adolescent’s health.
Too much time online can lead to poor physical and mental health. For instance, sitting in front of screens for too long – instead of being out and about, playing – can lead to unhealthy weight gain and obesity. (E.g., one study showed that teens with 5+ hours of daily screen time are twice as likely to have fat around their internal organs – which can lead to multiple diseases.) Similarly, too much online activity can eat away at sleep time, pushing children’s bedtimes later into the night and overstimulating them right when they should be unwinding. Over the years, these unhealthy lifestyle habits often lead to poor mental health and mood issues like anxiety and depression.
As parents, we can address these challenges in stages. First, run a media audit on your child’s online activity.
If you’re concerned about your child’s web experiences, consider auditing her media exposure. Talk to her about the risks of media overexposure and suggest exploring her online routine. For instance, you could both review her social media feeds, using her ‘favourited’ channels and subscriptions to map out her online profile. This profile will reveal the kind of content she’s regularly exposed to, and you can use this to discuss how her feeds might be affecting her overall happiness levels. For older children who think this audit is unfairly intrusive, consider letting them review samples of your online activity, too. They’ll feel less judged if your social media habits are being evaluated, too. Remember, simply banning or limiting media access will only make your child more resentful. So, talking to her about all this is what will make the difference.
After the audit, consider setting up family media rules.
Once your adolescent understands why you’re concerned about her media access, get her to help create a fair set of family media rules that everyone has to follow. This might mean blocking certain news/media sites, creating islands of ‘downtime’ without internet use, and designating screen-free zones at home (e.g., at the dinner table or in bedrooms). Use parental-control apps like Screentime and Qustodia to enforce these rules and agree on consequences for breaking them.
It’s tempting to try and control your adolescents entire online life, but that rarely works. So, it’s important to find the right balance.
You might want to protect your child, but you’ll also need to respect her privacy. And this is a tricky balance to negotiate – which is why many parents can benefit from consulting a specialist. A therapist or coach can help look into underlying triggers for your child’s current media diet, suggest sustainable solutions, and address any background mental health concerns that might yet be unnoticed. To explore your options, consider contacting us for a quick chat. The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- Email: Office@TheEdPsych.com
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