A recent study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) revealed a possible link between social media and brain changes in young adolescents. MRI brain scans showed that teens who frequently check social media had increased activation in certain parts of their brain, which could lead to changes in impulse control and regulation. These changes in brain activity could also cause teens to be hypersensitive around their friends, especially when receiving feedback or criticism.

The study made headlines and now parents, understandably, have questions. Melissa Santos, PhD, Division Head of Pediatric Psychology at Connecticut Children’s, addresses concerns about social media use right now. Read below the fold for more.

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What are the negative effects of social media on children and teens?

Think about screen time—we hear all the time about the benefits to limiting children’s time in front of the TV, computer, tablet or phone. There’s a reason for it: anyone using the screen or any digital device frequently—and that includes social media—can put themselves at increased risk of obesity, irregular sleep, depression and anxiety, and lack of physical activity.

What are some benefits of social media?

Social media has a positive side, too. It can help with:

  • Building relationships: friendships are a major part of teen life. Social media can help new friendships blossom or maintain current friendships. It’s all about having a sense of community, which can easily happen through social media.
  • Sharing knowledge: Everyone uses social media to share information about what’s happening in the world. Always ask your child their source if they bring up with you something they’ve discovered, though.
  • Learning new things: Dances that that go viral? Art and craft ideas? Gathering information or resources if they or a friend needs help? Check, check and check! Social media can be great for all these things.
  • Practicing creativity: Many of us look to social media for personal expression. When used with the appropriate privacy settings in place, it’s a great creative outlet to showcase talents and explore interests.

The key message? Everything in moderation!

When should I be concerned about my teen’s social media use?

If you’re unsure whether or not your teen may be overusing social media, look out for these behaviors:

  • Compare & Despair: Is your child or teen comparing themselves negatively in relation to seeing the fun activities of others? Are they upset by not getting as many “likes” as others?
  • Fear of Missing Out (FOMO): The photos from the birthday party they weren’t invited to or the group of friends hanging out after class can stir up feelings of loneliness. Seeing what friends are doing online can easily make a child or teen feel excluded.
    Cyberbullying: Children or teens may use social media to post untrue information, photos or negative comments to hurt a peer’s feelings.
  • Technology Overload: With so many social media applications available, children and teens may feel the need to constantly be checking or posting interesting updates to their social pages.
  • Avoidance: Is your child or teen using social media as an escape…from homework? Negative emotions? Personal issues? Avoiding these issues through excessive use of social media can make those issues worse.
  • Limited In-Person Interactions: Utilizing social media in place of face-to-face interactions can make having those face-to-face interactions all the more difficult. Is your child or teen using social media as a crutch or replacement?
  • Stress Caused by News: Negative news updates and attachment to what’s happening in the world can provoke stress or anxiety.

>Related: Keep Your Child Safe from Cyberbullying

A young girl sits and looks sadly at her phone

How do I talk to my teen about their social media use?

  1. Check in: Make time daily to chat with your kids about their world. This could be during dinner, while getting ready for the day or any other time that works. This opens the door for casual, non-confrontational conversation around social media. Think back to when you were a kid. If your parents started asking you questions about something that was important to you or that you really enjoyed, you might get defensive or protective when questions about it are brought up, so make it part of your daily routine.
  2. Be curious: Partner with your child to understand what they really enjoy about social media. Ask questions, but from a genuine desire to learn more. And, yes, it might also help to find things in a non-social-media world they may enjoy getting involved in, too.

How can I, as a parent, set boundaries around social media?

Begin setting an example today that can help prevent issues tomorrow. Here are some tips:

  • Learn about the different social media and communication apps that your children and teens are using and get familiar with their safety features. You can try out the app and ask your child to show you.
  • Set a good example for your teens. Put your phone away while talking to your children or others because, parents, it starts with you.
  • Set a precedent for social media use early. Schedule time for technology breaks for everyone, such as during dinner or giving phones up at bedtime.
  • Talk to your children about what is happening on their social media, similar to how you would ask about school or what’s going on with their friends.
  • Look for warning signs that your child is being bullied online or stressed about their social media use, including: becoming upset, sad, or angry during or after using the Internet or phone; withdrawing from friends or family; unexplained decline in grades; refusal to go to school or anger toward school or certain classes; or reluctance to participate in activities they normally enjoy.

>Related: 7 Ways to Reduce Screen Time

Parents, you play an important role in helping your child develop a healthy relationship with social media.