It’s Official, Social Media Is Toxic for Our Youth. A Student Wellbeing Activist Shares What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Children.

The U.S. Surgeon General just confirmed what we’ve all long suspected: Social media is harmful to young people. In a recent public advisory warning of the risks social media use poses to children and teens, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy says while we don’t yet know the full impact on our young people, there are “ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and wellbeing of children and adolescents.” 

           Student wellbeing activist David Magee couldn’t agree more.

          “Too much social media is outright toxic for young people,” asserts Magee, author of the upcoming book Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis (Matt Holt, August 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377439-6-6, $22.00) and award-winning book Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss. “At a time when children and teens should be building social skills, deepening relationships with friends and loved ones, and pursuing their interests, they are feeding an addiction to apps like TikTok and Snapchat. And it’s not even giving them the joy and happiness they are seeking. In fact, it’s making them sick and miserable.”

           Social media is a “joy thief” in many ways, says Magee, who travels the country speaking with parents and children about substance misuse and mental health. Social media apps fuel rising levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. They contribute to sleep disturbances, which cause a domino effect of symptoms mimicking ADHD, along with roller-coaster emotions and impulses. They lead to body image issues and dangerous eating disorders. They expose children to bullying, destroy their self-esteem, and even target them with messages from drug pushers. 

          Echoing Dr. Murthy, Magee insists that adolescents, whose brains are still developing, are not yet equipped to deal with these risks and dangers. That’s why it’s up to parents to intervene and help them develop healthier habits around their social media use. A few tips: 


Here’s the mantra on smartphone ownership: Delay, delay, delay. It’s no secret that adolescents often use smartphones to access social media apps, so be mindful of how early you give them their first phone. There is no “right” age recommendation for this. Only you know your child’s maturity level, what they can handle, and what’s right for them. But Magee and other experts recommend holding off as long as possible. For example, the non-profit Wait Until 8thurges parents to wait until children are in the eighth grade before giving them a smartphone. 


Don’t preach. But do talk to your children about the dangers of social media. “Have age-appropriate conversations with your children about the risks, such as cyberbullying, mental health disorders, and solicitations from online drug dealers,” advises Magee. “Let them know they should come to you if they are struggling. But also, teach them to be smart about how they use social media. Help them check their privacy settings so their information is not public. Remind them about what is and isn’t appropriate to post. And do make sure they are treating their peers with respect and kindness when they are online.”


Set reasonable limits on social media use. Have a talk with your children and work together to make rules about how much social media time is allowed each day. Also, decide on times when the entire family will “unplug” to enjoy time together. Find time every day to put the devices away and create fun and lasting memories you can all cherish forever. 


Banish phones from the bedside. Children and teens who don’t sleep are more at risk for symptoms of ADHD, roller-coaster emotions and impulses, increased anxiety and depression, and angry outbursts. And yet, most adolescents miss out on the sleep they desperately need so they can scroll away on social media. (In fact, more than one-third of all teens get only 5 to 6 hours of sleep a night, according to a 2010 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, while the optimal sleep amount for teens is 9.25 hours nightly.)


“Instead of preaching and pressuring your child to ‘get off the phone and go to sleep,’ engage them in a conversation about the importance of sleep and its benefits,” suggests Magee. “Help them recognize that smartphone use is an obstacle to a good night’s rest, and that bed is not for homework or social time, but for sleeping.”


Curb your own phone time. Yes, many parents love getting on social media themselves. If you’re one of them, remember that your children are watching and taking cues from you to learn how much scrolling and posting is healthy or appropriate. Check your own usage. If you are spending all your free time on Facebook or Instagram, put yourself on a social media diet and hold yourself accountable to the limits you set. 


Silence nonessential notifications. No one can focus near a smartphone that’s constantly beeping or vibrating. Remind your children to silence the notifications on their social media apps so incoming messages are less distracting while they are doing other activities.  


Help your child embrace their life in the “real world.” When your child’s life is full of healthy activities and strong relationships, they will be less tempted to escape into their social media apps. Encourage them to invite friends over to hang out. Help them get involved in an extracurricular activity or with a volunteer organization so they can meet new people and have in-person interactions. If they are old enough, encourage them to get a part-time job. 


           The Surgeon General’s warning is no surprise to anyone who’s paying attention. Parents and educators see the damaging effects of social media up close every day. It’s all too easy for children—at shockingly younger ages—to get sucked into a world of bullying, drama, and online gossip; absorb unhealthy messages on body image; or even buy dangerous and deadly drugs. Change is long overdue, and Magee says it starts with real conversations with our children.  

            “We need to explain that real, sustainable joy goes far beyond the instant gratification that social media brings,” says Magee. “No number of followers or ‘likes’ can compete with the lasting satisfaction that comes from pursuing your own passions and following your own path. 

“Parents can steer children away from sources that deplete their joy and threaten their lives, like social media can,” he adds. “The sooner you help them see that there’s much more to their life, their worth, and their future than their online profiles and interactions, the sooner you can get them on the road to lasting wellbeing.”

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About David Magee:

David Magee is the best-selling author of Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis and Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss—a Publisher’s Weeklybestseller, named a Best Book of the South, and featured on CBS Mornings

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