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Social media: How parents can limit its negative impact on mental health

For #SelfcareSummer, one of our Parent Champions writes about her experience of how social media can have a potentially negative impact on mental health and how we can limit this in our lives.

During recent months, our lives have been turned upside down and usual routines have changed for most of us. Lots of people have found themselves scrolling more on social media than before. Myself included. And so have our children.

Social media is a place for connections and communities. It's a place that can enrich users' lives. Social media can boost our mental health through its content and by facilitating connections that make us feel less alone. It can educate us and give users a platform to share their voices, and where users can become change makers. But social media can also be a dark place – one of discrimination, hateful behaviour and a danger to the personal security of its users, not to mention their mental health.

I’ve found that there are aspects of social media that directly contribute to my mental health in a negative way and may affect yours too. These are:

Our privacy – If your privacy settings are not watertight, your personal and cyber safety – and that of your children – could be at risk. Better to be safe than sorry.

The time we spend – Social media platforms are designed to be addictive. It’s easy to while away your time scrolling, without realising that two hours have gone by.

The content we consume – Though we have seen a move towards more accurate representations of our reality being shared on social media in recent years, content that shows a distorted or edited reality can have a negative impact on our self-esteem. The content you see has also been tailored for you, based on the information you have given (often without realising you have!)

Information we’ve shared – On sign-up, you will often include your name, date of birth and location, among other types of data. The way you then use social media gives the platforms even more information (e.g. who your friends are, your exact location if you use geo tagging, and what interests you – via your searches, private messages and hashtags used).

This summer, and with our children mostly out of childcare and with time on their hands, what can we do as parents to limit the negative impact on their mental health?

1.Wear a watch: What do you and your children use to tell the time? Do you pick up your phone? If so, you check the time, see the notifications, open the apps, and before you know it half an hour has gone. I used to do the same, but wearing a watch has definitely reduced the number of times I reach for my phone. So, it’s time to buy a watch! 

2. Curate your feed: Follow accounts that make you feel good. Think inspiration versus comparison. The number of accounts we follow can creep up, without us realising it. Review the accounts you are following. Does their content make you feel good about yourself, or do you find yourself in a state of comparison? If it's the latter, unfollow! Surround yourself by content that adds value to your life. Find experts in fields you are interested in, or accounts that share true and honest reflections of life. Spend a little time curating your account so that you see a healthier, balanced and more inspiring reflection of life. The algorithms learn from the information you give them, so make sure you’re giving them the right data.

3. Use In-App time management tools: Most apps and devices now have tools to help you manage the time spent in social media apps. Check them out and, if you’re a parent, make sure you are making full use of parenting controls and/or third-party apps to manage your child’s screen time.

4. Post responsibly: Every social media user has a responsibility to ensure the content that they post isn’t harmful to others. Unfortunately, drugs, bullying, false news and other negative content is prevalent. So let’s set an example and show the next generation just how positive a place social media can be. We can do this by filling it with motivating, interesting and inspiring content.

5. Don’t compare yourself to strangers: For me, this is the most difficult aspect of social media. Too often, I’ve felt inadequate as a mother or a wife as a direct result of the content I have consumed on social media. It’s a hard message to instil in my children because I find it so challenging myself. But through curating my feeds, I find it easier to model it.

I have personally seen the ugly side of social media, and I find myself more and more frustrated by the corporations which allow their platforms to be used in such a way. As a parent, it is so important to report any form of abuse and block the user from your or your child’s account. Condemn this behaviour at every opportunity and, if need be, take it to the police. Online abuse and harassment can have the most tragic of consequences. Above all else, educating our children how to safely navigate the digital world they are growing up in is of paramount importance.

But there are positive experiences too. When I was alone, breast feeding in the middle of the night and struggling with my unhappy feelings, I began to feel less alone when I read brave mothers’ tales of their mental states. I started to follow fellow mums who used their accounts as a place to offload the heavy stuff. I also found some brilliant psychotherapists, who are parents themselves who suffer from mental ill health. Their advice has been invaluable. So many of these accounts are inspirations of mine and they are a genuinely supportive community of like-minded people. They are my tribe.

The Anna Freud Centre has a self-care page that has over 90 self-care strategies to help young people when feeling low or anxious.