Diagnosing a Different Kind of Social Disease
Does social media use harm our kids’ mental health? The research is inconclusive. The reflections of ADDitude readers are pretty clear.
The social isolation of the pandemic predictably led to rampant feelings of loneliness, despair, and apathy among adolescents in the prime of their social-skills development, and the troubling effects of shuttered schools and canceled activities continue to linger.
In a new ADDitude survey of 1,187 caregivers, half said their adolescent’s “friendships and/or other relationships have deteriorated” over the last two to three years, and that their child continues to be unmotivated to participate in sports, clubs, or other activities — even now that a relatively normal school year is underway. The pandemic’s stark and sudden interruption of kids’ social development has cast a long shadow, especially for those with ADHD who may already struggle to make and keep friends.
For many who graduated from high school at the peak of the pandemic, memories of their final years sting. “I missed out on important developmental changes and interactions,” said a 19-year-old survey respondent diagnosed with ADHD and bipolar disorder.
[Click to Read: Safeguarding ADHD Youth Against Depression in the Age of COVID]
A mother of a 10-year-old in New Jersey said her son is no longer interested in “parties or events with friends he used to hang with, and he worries about things that he doesn’t need to think about, including family money and our house flooding again.”
A Lifeline or an Affliction?
For many children cut off from friends and activities, social media became a lifeline during the pandemic. According to the ADDitude survey, 72 percent of kids aged 10 and older who have ADHD use social media today. Of those, 35 percent reported adverse mental health effects, including anxiety, sadness, sleep problems, and depression. These negative outcomes are about 70 percent higher than those seen in adolescents who don’t use social media.
Overall, 15 percent of adolescents with ADHD who use social media reportedly experience eating problems, and 14 percent have engaged in self-harm, according to the survey. The picture is even more bleak for young females with ADHD who use social media. Fully half of these girls’ caregivers reported adverse mental health effects from social media use by their kids, with 21 percent reportedly experiencing eating issues and nearly 18 percent engaging in self-harm.
According to caregivers, 58 percent of girls with ADHD have been bullied on social media and 44 percent in text messages. “My daughter was bullied online, her account was hacked, and explicit photos of my daughter were shared online,” said the mother of a 15-year-old in Canada. “My daughter went from a happy, healthy, successful singer, dancer, and actor to withdrawing from everything.”
[Related Reading: How to Protect Your Child From Cyberbullying]
As many as 42 percent of survey respondents said their child has experienced trauma, and 63 percent of those said their child was receiving mental health care today; more than half reportedly started therapy during the pandemic. Still, a majority of caregivers said long waiting lists; scheduling, cost, and insurance barriers; and a lack of local providers have made it “difficult to very difficult” to access care.
“The mental health system is quite broken,” said a mother of a child with ADHD, anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder. “The real help only kicks in when your child is actively suicidal.”
Safeguarding Your Child’s Mental Health
1. Ensure that your child is using technology and social media in healthy ways.
Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D., suggests the following strategies:
- Watch for warning signS of problematic Internet use. There’s no consensus just yet, but this self-test could help you pick up on potential red flags.
- Quality is much more important than quantity. Try to understand what your teen actually does online/on social media, and pay attention to who they’re interacting with.
- Have ongoing conversations about online experiences. Try co-viewing your child’s social media feed, especially if they tell you that they’re feeling negatively about what they’re seeing. By co-viewing, you may be able to see the posts that are causing body image concerns, anxiety, and other forms of dissatisfaction.
2. Watch for signs of cyberbullying.
Your child might be a victim of cyberbullying if you notice that they…
- have increased or decreased their device use.
- hide screens or devices when others are near.
- avoid discussions about social media/device use.
- are suddenly performing poorly in school or are refusing to attend.
- become withdrawn, sad, or angry after being online.1 2
This article covers strategies to help your child deal with bullies in school.
3. Take a trauma-informed approach at home.
Honor the four Rs of trauma-informed care:
- Realize the widespread impact of trauma
- Recognize signs and symptoms of trauma
- Respond instead of reacting by using validation and de-escalation skills
- Resist re-traumatization by incorporating stress management and relaxation skills to cope with distress
Read this article for additional trauma guidance for parents and caregivers.
ADHD, Social Media, and Mental Health: Next Steps
- Join Us! Mental Health Out Loud Event on Eating Disorders in Teens
- Read: Special 2022 Mental Health Report from ADDitude
- Download: How to Regulate Your Teen’s Devices
- Sign Up: Mental Health Out Loud: Eating Disorders and Body Image Among Teens
- Read: Q: My Teen Has Only Online Friends — Will Screen Time Limits Help?
- Read: The Social Media Guide for Teens
Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.
View Article Sources
1American Defense League. Cyberbullying warning signs. https://www.adl.org/resources/tools-and-strategies/cyberbullying-warning-signs
2U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Prevent Cyberbullying. https://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/prevention