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What do online social networks do to the brain? Is it safe for kids to be “connected” for hours on end? Here’s what parents need to know about the subject.

Spending a lot of time on social networks like Facebook has been linked to mental health problems in children and teenagers according to a report submitted to the Commons Health Select Committee by Public Health England. Using surveys, the organization found that 1/3 of teenagers feel “low, sad or down” at least once a week, 1/5 have a poor sense of well-being and 10% of England’s children have a mental health problem.  Even more frightening, the research showed that 750,000 teenagers feel they have “nothing to live for”, a possible warning sign for suicidal thoughts and behavior.

There are reports of children who have actually committed suicide as a result of a social network addiction. One was a bright, 15-year old, active ballerina who withdrew from the real world, choosing to live online as a drug-using cutter. When her mother found out about the account, she forced her to delete it. Shortly thereafter, the girl threw herself under a train.

Every child is unique but all of us share some things in common.  We all need social interaction. It is a basic human need. The new “virtual” society cannot replace real life contact and communication.  An adult’s mental health could not remain intact for long in isolation. A child’s mental health is even more delicate than an adult’s.  The teenager who committed suicide likely felt that her world had been destroyed when her online avatar was deleted.  She had said that the only people who really cared about her were her “online fans”.  In other cases, the cause of the poor sense of well-being may be cyber-bullying, a phenomenon that has increased significantly judging by the number of children who have reached out to ChildLine, an organization created to help kids work through a wide range of problems.

Other risks include sexual exploitation and exposure to pedophiles.  Any of those things can damage a child’s self-esteem and lead to feelings of depression or anxiety. Heightened aggression has also been blamed on excessive internet usage.  Our digital culture certainly seems to be having a negative impact on our children. Smartphones and tablets have made it even easier to stay connected.  Some children even take their phones to bed with them. They are literally connected 24 hours a day.  Most adults realize that they need to disconnect sometimes, take a “technology break”, so to speak, but children and teens may not be able to disconnect on their own.  Most will need some guidelines.

A mountain of research has shown that children thrive best when they have regular schedules and routines.  As parents, we are responsible for creating the schedule and making sure our kids stick to the routine.  As they get older, the “enforced” routine will have become a habit, a healthy habit.  Most of us parents are accustomed to limiting the amount of time our kids spend watching TV or playing video games.  Now, we just have to add social networks to the list of limited activities.  Public Health England reports that the risks to mental health increase with every hour spent on social networks.

The greatest damage to mental health is seen when more than 4 hours a day are spent online, but some harm may occur at very low levels.  So, maybe you could say, “No more than 30 minutes on Facebook.”  That should be plenty of time to make their daily posts.

Photograph of teen male, probably 17 years old, short blonde hair neatly combed back with a black leather jacket and looking very seriously into the camera.

Social Media and Mental Health

What do online social networks do to the brain? Is it safe for kids and teens to be “connected” for hours on end? Here’s what parents need to know about the subject.


JANUARY 8, 2017


Image: Unsplash-Joshua Clay

Social Media Changing Your Brain

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