Many of us have a complicated relationship with social media. On the one hand, it keeps us connected to loved ones, friends, and family. On the other hand, we’ve heard or seen how social media negatively impacts mental health and personal relationships. With the onset of the pandemic, both kids and parents have been more isolated than ever. Many have turned to social media to fill their need for connection. All of this raises the question, “Can social media use be healthy?”
Social media has problematic effects partly because we, as humans, have a natural drive to compare ourselves to others. We most often compare ourselves to others in our peer group. Then we evaluate ourselves based on our perceptions of other people.
This “comparison instinct” evolved tens of thousands years ago, when prehistoric humans had to learn how to predict and avoid danger. If our prehistoric ancestors didn’t fit in with the small group they lived with, they would be left alone. They developed a habit of comparing themselves to others simply to ensure they survived.
This tendency that modern-day humans have inherited is still useful sometimes. It helps us identify possibilities we’ve never thought of. In doing so, it helps inspire us to learn and grow from others. However, in modern times our social networks have expanded. We also gained access to social media where we can compare ourselves to many more people than before. Now we can connect to people all over the globe! As a result, social comparison sometimes feels unmanageable. And social comparison may often be counterproductive for kids, teens… and adults.
When kids and teens compare themselves to other young people on social media, they often feel like they’re not good enough. They see youth who appear to be more attractive and have more friends. The problem is, kids only see the positive aspects of others’ lives and never see the less than perfect aspects. Remember that children’s and teens’ brains are still not fully developed. As a result, they may have a more difficult time than adults with putting what they see into perspective. Kids and teens may start judging themselves harshly, and this may lead to depression, and even thoughts of suicide.
Parents sometimes fall into the same trap, even though they may have mature and fully developed brains. Many parents use social media to follow other parents who appear to have it all together. When parents make social comparisons on social networking sites, they may feel overwhelmed with all of the different roles they play (e.g. employee, parent, spouse, etc.) This is often what leads parents to feel like incompetent caregivers. Mothers are not the only ones at risk. Fathers often have few places where they can connect in a supportive way with other fathers. This makes them vulnerable to self-doubt and self-judgment.
Stay Connected in a Healthy Way
So, how can we stay connected on social media while avoiding the negative effects of social comparison? The best way we can protect ourselves from unhealthy social comparison while using social media is by carefully choosing which individuals we follow.
As a parent, you may want to set some time aside to assess and reflect on your social media connections. Ask yourself: Which connections inspire you and help you gently think through your role as a parent, neighbor, etc.? Which connections do not feel supportive? Unfollow accounts that you notice are having an unhealthy effect on your life. Seek out alternatives. Then make a pact to use your social media time deliberately to gather useful information or seek out positive social support. When you start to use social media more consciously, you will model healthy social media use for your child or teen. You will also have a better idea of how to talk with your child or teen about healthy social media use. You can better support your child with being selective about which individuals they want follow.
As you explore your own social media habits, consider the additional strategies for families below.
Strategies to Build a Healthy Relationship with Social Media
- To balance out the negative impacts of comparison to others on social media, engage in activities that promote a strong sense of self.
- Find gratitude in your daily life.
- Take care of yourself by engaging in other self-care practices, such as physical activity, alone time, journaling, socializing, etc.
- Seek the help of a therapist if needed.
- Follow social media accounts that show the raw and real aspects of life and not just the picture perfect moments.
- Follow trusted professionals on social media, such as therapists, teachers, child development specialists, etc.
- Consider sharing aspects of your life on social media that you feel comfortable sharing, perhaps about your own parenting experience.
- Review the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations for children’s media use.
- Set limits on your own social media use as a parent. You may want to limit use after a certain time of day. Or make a point to do something uplifting before looking at your phone first thing in the morning.
- Have a family meeting to discuss social media, and let everyone’s voice be heard. Then create a family media plan together.
- Review the app, video game, TV, and video reviews and recommendations for parents on Common Sense Media.
Of course, social comparison isn’t the only part of social media use that can be harmful. Stay tuned to this blog for more information about social media’s effect on children and families. By making informed choices, you can help your family develop healthy social media habits.
At Intuition Wellness Center, we specialize in health and wellness services for children, young adults, and their families. If you think you would like some extra support, we’re here for you.
Written by: Melina Islas, M.A. & Debby Urken, LMSW