Teens and Social Media

David Laufgraben, M.D., discusses how social media and the digital world may be affecting teens. He highlights how teens may become addicted to social media and the impact on their mental health. He offers guidance on the signs of unhealthy digital addiction and the steps that parents can take to help moderate their children's usage of devices.
Teens and Social Media
Featured Speaker:
David Laufgraben, MD
Dr. David Laufgraben is a Board Certified general pediatrician who is dedicated to providing warm, compassionate care for kids of every age, and to earning the trust of families he works with. His mission is to offer the guidance and support needed to keep children healthy, and to help families weather the ups and downs of childhood along the way. 

Learn more about David Laufgraben, MD

Melanie:  There's no handbook for your child's health, but we do have a podcast featuring world-class clinical and research physicians covering everything from your child's allergies to zinc levels.

Welcome to Kids Health Cast by Weill Cornell Medicine. I'm Melanie Cole. And today, we are talking about teens and social media. Joining me is Dr. David Laufgraben. He's an Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine and an assistant attending pediatrician at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Dr. Laufgraben, it is a pleasure to have you join us again today. What is happening with kids and this digital world? Do you feel, and this is in your opinion, is this making them smarter? More worldly? Is it positive? And since the time of COVID now, they're so dependent on technology to pursue studies, research and even social relationships, doctor. So tell us a little bit about what you've seen going on. And, for parents, we're going to get into this discussion and talk about how we can in a little bit of a way digital detox our kids and get them to enjoy some of the other aspects of life.

Dr David Laufgraben: You know, like so many other things. The digital world can be used for good or ill. There are a lot of benefits that can go along with social media use, for example, and I don't want to lose sight of those. So kids report that it can build up their confidence. It makes them feel better about themselves. It gives them new opportunities to explore their identity, and it can be a real avenue for creativity. So spending time online can increase an adolescent's awareness and engagement with issues in their community and the wider world. It has the potential of connecting them with peers from other places and with other backgrounds, and that can lead to developing real empathy and respect for other people. So those are all wonderful things that online engagement can produce.

Well, we all know that there are risks too. So as pediatricians and as parents, we have to make sure that kids are aware that with online engagement can come a real loss of privacy. And that content that they post online, it can stick around forever. Something that they post at age 13 or 14 can impact them when they apply to college or pursue job opportunities down the road. And we also know that teenagers have got to be on guard against cyberbullying and, you know, so-called trolls, whose sole mission is to say outrageous things and cause arguments as well as real criminal activity like sexual predators and phishing scammers who are attempting identity theft.

So the online world is really its own environment. And like any environment, there's the potential for good and there's the potential for bad interactions as well. And when it comes to COVID, I think we all know that in the last year, all of us, not just teenagers, but all of us have been spending so much more time connecting through our computers and our tablets and our phones. And that's wonderful that we have those because we can imagine a hundred years ago in the last pandemic, we didn't have these tools to stay in touch with each other. But along with the opportunities and the good things that technology has given us in the last year is the danger of really going overboard and losing that healthy balance we all need between real-world activity, real-world relationships and time spent online.

Melanie: So well said. And as the parent of a 21 and an 18-year-old, I know that sometimes they won't even look up when they're looking at Instagram or TikTok. And I mean, I do love social media and I love TikTok, but I can look away. So while you've discussed that this is necessary for social interaction, for school, for studies and research, can they be addicted to the other aspects, the aspects of sort of where you get to forget everything else and dissociate and where they don't look up because they're watching TikToks?. What is the impact of too much of that kind of social media on our kids?

Dr David Laufgraben: So this is a real hot topic. And I think a lot of parents share these concerns. And the truth is that the companies that create these social media platforms, they design them to be as engaging and interactive as possible. They are intended to be habit-forming for all of us. We discussed that there's a lot of potential benefits to using social media and I'm not going to sit here and advise teenagers to avoid it. And we both know they wouldn't listen to me if I did anyways.

What we're talking about is use in moderation. Any habit can become an addiction. And what you want to look out for is, is it negatively impacting their lives? Despite that negative impact, are your kids not able to give it up or even to cut back? That's when we start saying, you know, this could be a problem for that individual adolescent, that individual teen.

If parents start spotting major red flags and some of those might be are their everyday lives getting disrupted by their online activities? So for example, are they losing their regular healthy sleep habits? Are they missing sleep? Are they tired the next day? Is their school performance suffering? Do you have a kid who used to be on the honor roll and now, you know, they're barely getting by or they're even failing some classes? Are they so invested and involved in their online lives, that the kind of real world experiences that they used to enjoy, are they ignoring them or are they losing interest in them?

These kinds of concerns should get any parent's attention and make them think, you know, maybe we have lost sight of the right balance between online world and real world activity. And it's time to take a deeper dive into my teenager's online life and see if we can find a way to restore that healthy balance.

Melanie: Okay. So I think the million-dollar question is how, right? If we see that our kids aren't exercising like when they were kind of forced to do gym or recess or something, and they are sleeping at weird hours, which teens want to do any way, but a lot of it, because they're lying there in their beds, school, and they're sitting there on social media. So what do we do? As you say, we know it's not easy and, in some cases really, not easy. What do we do, Dr. Laufgraben? How do we separate these two things between the need and just that desire?

Dr David Laufgraben: A lot of parents are sort of stumped at this point and it can be difficult, right? Because teenagers are online because they are engaged with it. They're enjoying it. And, for any of us, not just teens, but for adults and for younger kids too, if we have a habit that we are getting something out of, it's hard to change that habit. It's hard to break a routine. It's one of the hardest things to do.

And I'm glad that you mentioned exercise as well, because that's something that I should have brought up before, is that the little longer we spend connecting online, by its very nature, that's a sedentary pursuit, right? We are in one place looking at a screen, looking at our phones and that means that we're being less active. And we know that if teenagers or adults, for that matter, are spending too much time engaging that way, it's time that they're not active, that they're not exercising, and we start worrying more about obesity becoming a concern, and we've seen that be the case.

To get to your question, how can we get teenagers to take a step back? How can we encourage digital detox? How can we get them to strike that healthier balance? And I think that parents can try a couple of things. The easiest things is to try and set some family rules to put some guard rails up around online use. And some of the more common ones are, "Let's put screens away during mealtimes." Let that be a time that's really reserved for connecting with the people you're living with, your friends, your family. Or on family outings for that matter, "Let's not have our phones out when we're all out together and try and connect with each other instead, or try to enjoy, you know, just being outdoors and getting some fresh air." Those are good places to start.

The other key one that I would mention is we know that sleep is crucial for teenagers. They're going through this explosive period of growth. They need their rest. And so often, they are taking their phones to bed with them, they are using social media, they're online, they're posting content right before bed, and that is just not good sleep hygiene. We know that that can lead to delayed sleep, poor quality sleep. So right before bed is another time that we really recommend putting the phone aside and having a nice dark, quiet space, that really promotes a healthy night's sleep.

And finally, the thing that teenagers are going to do is they are looking to their parents. Their parents are always going to be the role models, although it may not always feel that way. They're always looking at their parents and watching their behavior. So, as parents, we have to really walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

So if we are saying that family time's important, that time off of the digital world is important, then we need to really demonstrate that behavior ourselves. We have to put our phones away, our computers away just as we're telling them to do to show that we really value the things that we're saying. And that it's not just a rule for them, it's something that's important for us as well.

Melanie: Certainly so true. And I've caught myself looking at my phone. and saying, "Can you kids get off your phone?" And I've caught myself doing it. So I imagine for people that work and do their business on their phones, it's even harder as a parent to do that role modeling. But again, as you say, so important.

So communication, as we're going to wrap up, I'd like you, as the expert you are, to give us some of the words, some of the communications skills, lessons, if you would, Dr. Laufgraben, in getting this conversation going in trying to, because we all know teen brains are up and down, zero to a hundred, and they're going to get mad at us for what we are asking them to do, right? So can you help us, as we wrap up, with the wording, the skills, the language. Help us communicate with our kids.

Dr David Laufgraben: Absolutely. Communication is totally crucial. I could not agree with you more. The pieces of advice that I usually give parents on how to communicate effectively with their teenagers, is going to sound like good advice hopefully for communicating with anyone of any age, because teenagers are looking for the same thing that so many of us are looking for. They really want to be heard. They want to be respected and they want to be able to come to their parents for reliable cool-headed advice. So

My first piece of advice is to listen carefully to what your teen is saying, and don't leap to judgements. If your child is talking to you, they're going to want to hear what you have to say, but you need to really wait and hear them out first. And if you judge them too quickly or too harshly without really understanding where they are coming from, and they might be less likely to bring their issues up to you again and that's the last thing we want. We want them to feel comfortable coming to you about this issue and any issue, because we know that parents are going to be the best source of information for their kids and are going to always have their best interests at heart.

The second thing is try to be a calm and steady presence in the room. It's easy for kids to feel overwhelmed when they are facing a problem, whether it is talking about spending a little less time online or any other problem they face in school or in their social lives. They need their parents to stay cool and grounded and help problem solve with them. When parents stay calm, it's reassuring to kids and it reduces their anxiety instead of increasing it.

And the last thing is I tell parents try and avoid the big lecture. Most teenagers are just not at a stage where they can absorb the lessons embedded in any long speech, especially something abstract about values or anything that is off the topic at hand. Keep your advice short. Don't make it too personal, because once adolescents get defensive, they're not going to hear anything else you have to say and that goes for adults too, I think. And make it concrete to your child's situation. Then you've got the best chance of really having them hear you out and the best chance of having them continue to look to you for guidance going forward in the future.

Melanie: What great advice. I am going to take that advice myself starting today. Parents, that was it. This is the message and we all need to hear it. Please share this show with your friends and family on your social channels, because we're learning from the experts at Weill Cornell Medicine together. And that's the way we can help our kids and ourselves to come together and communicate and a little bit of digital detox.

And Weill Cornell Medicine continues to see our patients in person as well as through video visits. And you can be confident of the safety of your appointments at Weill Cornell Medicine. Thank you so much, Dr. Laufgraben, for joining us again. What a great guest you are.

That concludes today's episode of Kids Health Cast. We'd like to invite our audience to download, subscribe, rate, and review Kids Health cast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcast. For more health tips, please visit weillcornell.org and search podcasts. And don't forget to check out our Back To Health. I'm Melanie Cole.

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