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Social media and youth: Tips for parents and teens to support healthy habits

A new U.S. report into the effects of social media on youth mental health is fuelling a conversation around how best to manage technology in the digital age.

Platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat use algorithms to cater content for individual users and its effect can be addictive.

"Your first instinct as a parent is to take away all the cell phones and throw them in the garbage but unfortunately the technology is here to stay," says Dr. Michael Cheng, a child and family psychiatrist with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). "Now, the conversation is changed to be, 'How can we use it in a way that is less bad and healthier?' And let’s remember that, first and foremost, kids need a connection to us as parents and we also need to make sure our kids get enough sleep, proper nutrition, get outside and get physical activity."

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy wants immediate action from tech companies and policymakers to protect the mental health of children.

"We have got to focus on the prevention piece, getting at the root of the problem, and one of the things we have to do here is not only build stronger social connections, which are protective and help improve mental health for kids, we’ve also got to realize that technology has a role here too," Murthy says. "Whether tech can help us or hurt us, too many kids are telling us in their own words that their experience with social media is leading them to feel worse about themselves and their friendships and that has to change."

The report from the surgeon general shows that 95 per cent of youth 13 to 17 years old use social media, one-third of which say they are scrolling through posts constantly. The report says that youth and adolescents should aim to spend about three hours a day on social media.

Cheng points to research by Canadian medical experts that shows reducing young adults' screen time will benefit their mood, decrease the risk of depression and anxiety, and improve self-image and self-esteem.

"We know one of the worst types of social media is social media where kids are doing beauty or concerned about their appearance. That makes everyone feel insecure and then that contributes to eating disorders," Cheng says. "We need to make sure our kids are connected to things that give a sense of purpose, hope and meaning, and use the parental controls to set limits on screen time because the more time we can keep them busy, the less time they have to mindlessly surf. We should remember that if we are using social media and it’s actually helping us connect to people we know in real life, then it can be helpful; if we’re using it to inspire us to be more creative or do good in the world, then that’s a good thing too."


• Reach out for help: If you or someone you know is being negatively affected by social media, reach out to a trusted friend or adult for help.

• Create boundaries: Limit the use of phones, tablets, and computers for at least one hour before bedtime and through the night to make sure you get enough sleep. Keep mealtimes and in-person gatherings device-free to help build social bonds and engage in two-way conversations with others. Connect with people in person and make unplugged interactions a daily priority.

• Be cautious about what you share: Personal information about you has value. Be selective with what you post and share online and with whom, as it is often public and can be stored permanently. If you aren't sure if you should post something, it's usually best if you don't.

• Don't keep harassment or abuse a secret: Reach out to at least one person you trust, such as a close friend, family member, counsellor, or teacher, who can give you the help and support you deserve.


• Create a family media plan: Agreed-upon expectations can help establish healthy technology boundaries at home -- including social media use. A family media plan can promote open family discussion and rules about media use and include topics such as balancing screen/online time, content boundaries, and not disclosing personal information

• Create tech-free zones: Restrict the use of electronics at least one hour before bedtime and through the night. Keep meal times and other in-person gatherings tech-free. Help children develop social skills and nurture their in-person relationships by encouraging unstructured and offline connections with others.

• Model responsible behaviour: Parents can set a good example of what responsible and healthy social media use looks like by limiting their own use, being mindful of social media habits (including when and how parents share information or content about their child), and modelling positive behaviour on social media accounts.

• Empower kids: Teach kids about technology and empower them to be responsible online participants at the appropriate age. Discuss with children the benefits and risks of social media as well as the importance of respecting privacy and protecting personal information in age-appropriate ways. Have conversations with children about who they are connecting with, their privacy settings, their online experiences, and how they are spending their time online.

--With files from the Associated Press. Top Stories

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