How to Identify and Address Social Media Addiction in Kids

Texting, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube . . . if your child has a smart phone or tablet, you’re probably familiar with most of these iterations of social media. Experts say there’s nothing inherently wrong with kids’ moderate usage, but these days, it can be hard for parents to actually monitor their children’s use of social media. Consequently, kids’ internet usage isn’t moderate. Should you be concerned about your child’s social media use?

Social Media Can Be Addictive

According to a Pew Research Center report, 92 percent of teens aged 13–17 reported using social media daily; more than half reported using it several times per day; and almost 25 percent reported going online “almost constantly.” For social media-addicted teens, withdrawal symptoms mirror symptoms of caffeine and alcohol withdrawal.

A University of Maryland study followed 200 college students who abstained from social media for one day. The participants were then asked how they felt at the end of the study, and they reported feeling “anxiety,” “craving,” “withdrawal,” “impaired functioning,” and “seclusion.” It is likely that children and teens, whose brains are still undeveloped, suffer similar feelings when trying to abstain from serious social-media habits.

Signs of Social Media Addiction

It may not be realistic to ban social media entirely, especially for older children. In moderation, social media apps help kids connect with their peers and develop their individual identities, both of which are healthy. Instead, watch for signs that your child’s social media habit might be problematic. Does your child:

  • Use social media for long stretches of time without taking a break?
  • Use social media five-plus hours daily?
  • Lose sleep or oversleep due to excess social media use?
  • Prefer social media over face-to-face socializing?
  • Become angry or anxious when they don’t have access to social media apps?
  • Miss practice, neglect homework, or forego physical activity due to social media use?

How to Curb a Child’s Social Media Addiction

The most effective way to help kids overcome social media addiction is to restrict and redirect. It’s a safe assumption that you own whatever device they’re using to access social media (computer, tablet, cell phone, etc.). You own it, and you have the authority to confiscate or restrict access to it. However, simply forbidding your child to access social media probably won’t do much to cure their addiction. In fact, it could make them angry and resentful. One researcher studying that topic concluded that 38 percent of teenagers forbidden to use social media reported high levels of anxiety and bitterness toward parents.

When your child has an unhealthy social media compulsion, it’s not sufficient to verbally issue limits. If you want to physically stop them from using social media, you’ll probably need to confiscate the phone or tablet or move the computer so your child isn’t tempted to break your rules. If your child insists they need to use a device for a valid reason, like completing a homework assignment online, check in frequently to ensure they’re staying on task.

A more effective approach may be to help the child discover healthier, enjoyable alternative ways to use their time. Hopefully, they’ll gradually replace their excess social media time with the new activity. Every child is different, but redirection ideas include signing up your child for a music lesson, class, or sport; getting them involved in school clubs; adopting a pet; going on family outings; having family movie or game nights; finding them a regular volunteer gig; giving them chores they can do to earn money; etc. What, besides social media, piques their interests? Create opportunities for them to pursue those interests.

For extreme social media addictions, some parents turn to in-house residential treatment programs with social media addiction treatment programs for kids and teens. But best to take steps now to ensure your child’s addiction doesn’t become so critical that they need professional help. Addicted or not, make and enforce social media limits for your kids and steer them toward healthier activities. Allow your kids time to communicate on social media, but make sure it’s just a small fraction of their time.

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