Social Media and Mental Health In Kids
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Jonathan McKeeJonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices, If I Had a Parenting Do Over, 52 Ways to Connect with Your Smartphone Obsessed Kid; an...more
The problem with social media and mental health is really affecting our kids, but what do we do about it? Author, Jonathan McKee, helps parents understand the connection and how to talk to kids about it.
Social Media and Mental Health In Kids
Jonathan: I think sometimes, as parents, we feel this pressure to block out all the bad stuff.
Jonathan: Parents will sometimes walk up after my parent workshop—they’ll walk up to me; they’ll hand me a device—and they’ll be like, “Show me how to stop all the bad stuff from being on this. This is my daughter’s phone.” But honestly, it’s like we get—sometimes, so thinking we need to block—I’ll confess, I think that’s where I messed up as a parent.
I think, sometimes, I was so worried about blocking out the lies, where I should have been more concerned about telling the truth; like, “I’ve been crucified with Christ; I no longer live but Christ lives in me [Galatians 2:20].” Such a contrast to anything else they’re seeing at the time; which is: “Look at me. More ‘Likes’; more followers.” It’s like, “No, no, no; here’s what matters: Christ in me.”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: We’re sitting by the lake—family vacation—we’ve got our three sons and their wives. We’ve got six grandkids. It’s chaos, just in this little—
Ann: It’s awesome.
Dave: —little cottages that friends of us let us borrow. It’s wonderful to have friends that have cottages on the lake; you know? [Laughter]
We’re hanging out, and I pull out my phone. Well, to be honest, I had my phone in my hand the whole time.
Ann: It could be a problem.
Dave: Yes; well, go ahead; [Laughter] you want to comment?
Ann: No, it’s okay; keep going.
Jonathan: Maybe you should finish his story.
Ann: Keep going.
Dave: I’ve heard this many times; it’s a problem. Anyway, I was actually looking at something for my two-year-old grandson, Bryce, to look at. It was a video, and I’m pulling it out. I’m trying to slide it over, and he reaches over and closes the window, hits the little “X” on my phone. I thought, “He’s barely two years old; he knows how to control a screen!” I mean, I was shocked by that. Does that sound surprising to you?
Ann: I think that every time our son calls us or FaceTimes® with us, our grandson doesn’t want to be on the phone; so he’ll hit the off button so that he can’t talk to us anymore. He knows where that is; like, “Get off the phone, Dad.”
Dave: All I know is, sitting there in that moment, I thought, “A two-year-old is adept at this thing almost to the level that I am.” I thought, “In two, or three, or four, or five years—
Ann: —“you might be asking him questions!”
Dave: I mean, I just thought, “This is the world we live in. It’s wonderful in some sense, because God has given us an amazing piece of technology; but it’s also very scary. As parents, and now even as grandparents, how do we navigate this digital world we live in?”
We’ve got in the studio, again, with us Jonathan McKee, who/you really committed and devoted your life, formally, as a youth pastor; because you saw this all the time. But now, I mean, I can’t believe I’m looking across the studio and saying, “I’m looking at a guy who’s written over 25 books about this world.”
Ann: Jonathan, you’re not even that old. [Laughter]
Jonathan: I know; I’m only 21 years old. [Laughter]
Ann: That’s right.
Dave: There you go!
Jonathan: It’s amazing; I started writing when I was in the womb. [Laughter]
It is interesting because, I mean, I am drawn to the topic. Because even as you talk about/I think it’s one of the things we, as parents, think is: “Oh, my kids know this technology better than me.” I think that’s why a lot of parents just hand their kids these screens; because they think, “You know it better than me. What can I possibly teach you?”
Really it’s not the knowledge of the technology that’s important; it’s the wisdom behind it/the decision-making on:
- who they should connect with;
- and how much time they should spend on this device;
- and what effect it’s having on them when they’ve got a device in their pocket that tells them exactly how popular or unpopular they are, and they’re trying to measure up to what these little numbers on this device say.
That’s the conversations that most of us aren’t having with our kids that we need to have with our kids, not about which button to push.
Dave: Yes, I wish we had a place we could go so that we could become screen wise. Oh, you know what?!
Jonathan: Oh, wow! [Laughter]
Dave: You’re website is called becomingscreenwise.com, which is literally what we’re hoping; because our kids are pretty screen wise. Again, from two/five on up, we are often way behind the curve.
We’re going to talk about a couple of books you’ve written. Your latest one, Parenting Generation Screen; which again, that’s the generation; right? We’re living in a world where they’re Generation Screen: Guiding Your Kids to be Wise in a Digital World. That’s really written to parents; right?
Then The Teens Guide to Face-to-Face Connections in a Screen-to-Screen World. So you’ve got a book for teenagers to understand: “How do we have what we’re longing for, face to face, when all we do is look at screens?”
Let’s talk; I mean, the world we live in is a different world than we grew up. But we are now parents and grandparents in this world. Our kids get it so well. As you’ve already said, “The screen world, which is awesome, can also affect self-esteem.” Social media/the world we’re living in—talk about that with our kids.
Jonathan: I’ll tell you, that’s one of the reasons that I co-wrote this: The Teens Guide to Face-to-Face Connections in a Screen-to-Screen World. The reason I wrote that book with my daughter, Alyssa, was because she had a lot to say on that. She had grown up—and I told you in past shows, where she happened to be born in ’95, which put her right in high school in the shift to social media in your pocket was happening—because of that, she started to see that change in her friends; and she started to see that pressure to measure up becoming a bigger thing, because this is something that happened.
Then she went on to work at her college in admissions. She started; her job was then to connect with high school people [who] wanted to go to college. So she’s constantly with these kids now, as this young 20-something, seeing this—seeing it with her group of 20-something friends; seeing it with teenagers—and she had a lot to say about it.
One of the things that probably came up more—because we brain stormed as we talked about: “What are we going to talk about in this book?”—one of the things that came up more, and more, and more was how social media made us feel about ourselves. I’ll give you an example—she tells a story in the book—this experience she had, where she went to this event with some friends.
Here she is, a young 20-something, and they go to this fun beach event. She had been looking forward to this day with her friends. It’s a beautiful day; they’re going down to San Diego, and they’re going to be at this beach volleyball event. They’re going to be playing, and hanging out, and doing all this fun stuff together. She said the day was, and I quote her, “high jacked by Instagram®.”
She said, “Instead of hanging out with each other, and just talking and everything,” she says, “my friends were just buried in their phones the entire day.” She said, “Instead of just enjoying the event, the day was more about getting the perfect picture of the event and then posting that picture right then.” “Oh wait, this one isn’t…”; you know? She just said, “The day literally was a catastrophe.” She describes how the day went out: it ended with her going home, looking at her phone, and throwing it across the room, and just bursting into tears.
It was that that literally catalyzed her decision to actually take an Instagram fast. She says straight up, “Instagram is not bad; it’s not evil,” but for her, it just constantly made her compare. She said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” That’s fascinating; because it really brings up this subject that’s a very real issue for teens today—and we, as parents, are probably seeing it—and that is: “How much does social media affecting how they feel about themselves?”
Dave: Yes; and you know, the world that we lived in, that didn’t really exist. You were around people at school; you were around people maybe in the workplace—you sort of had this separation—when you got in your car and drove away, that sort of ended.
Now, today, a kid at school, who [is] maybe feeling some pressure/peer pressure, or even bullying, or feeling “less than,” doesn’t get to separate. There’s not: “The bell rings; I go home; I got to deal with this again tomorrow when I walk back onto the playground,” or whatever. It goes with—it’s in their pocket—they never get away.
Jonathan: All that drama—we felt it when we were in high school, those of us who were before this age—and it was there. But there was kind of some safety when that bell rang. There was safety when you finally left that soccer practice and you went home, hopefully; and you didn’t have to face it, at least, until the next morning at like 7:43 a.m.
Now, when that bell rings at 2:30 in the afternoon, we enter a whole different world, where now the amount of friends we have is represented by a number; how many followers we have is represented right there by a number. If you say something that’s noteworthy or liked, it will tell you how liked it is—there it is—there’s a number that tells you how liked it was or un-liked it was.
Jonathan: That’s a lot of pressure on young people. We’re seeing that kind of pressure.
As a matter of fact, a CEO of Instagram tried something unique, where you couldn’t see the “Likes” that people posted there. He wanted to try it. A bunch of—actually, celebrities particularly in the hip hop world—were like, “We’re not going to even do Instagram anymore if you take that away, because they need to see how many we have in it.” He got all kinds of flack for it, and it never ended up going through. But he, at the time, said “I’m trying to relieve some”—and this isn’t an exact quote; I don’t have it in front of me, but he basically said something like—“This is creating a very pressurized environment for young people, and I’m trying to create some relief here.”
I wish they would have done that, because it’s affecting the way young people feel about themselves. I’m going to go as far as to say, especially young girls.
Ann: Talk about depression/suicide because I talk to so many parents with teenaged kids that are really struggling with anxiety, depression, suicide tendencies. Is this attributing to that?
Jonathan: Yes; it’s funny, because so many experts were scratching their heads and looking at some of these numbers. In past shows, we talked about how the uptick in some of these—when it comes to anxiety, depression, suicide—we’re seeing that go up.
Jonathan: Specifically, a report from the US Department of Health and Human Services revealed that suicide rates among Americans, aged 10 to 24, increased—ready for this?—56 percent between 2007 and 2017.
Now anybody that studies technology goes, “Ting!”—2007 is the year the iPhone® was introduced—by 2012, we had crossed the 50 percent mark for having those things in our pockets. So by 2017, we now had Instagram and Snapchat® in our back pockets, statistically, for 5 years now. I mean, we really started to see, literally from 2012, is when we really started to see this take off.
Now there’s a lot of debate. Some experts are saying, “Hey, watch screen time. You’ve got to watch this screen time, having the screen in your pocket.” There was so much debate that I’ve got to throw respect out there for two researchers, Dr. Jean Twenge and Dr. Jonathan Haidt. Some of us might actually know Dr. Jonathan Haidt if we watched that Netflix® documentary about screen time. So many of us have seen that: The Social Dilemma.
Ann: The Social Dilemma
Jonathan: Yes, he was the one [who] was talking about self-esteem, and those number charts were going up as he was talking. That little girl, who looked in the mirror and felt self-conscious about a part of her body; and she started feeling—it was an amazing scene—he was the one talking there.
He and Dr. Jean Twenge, who is the author of iGen—the two of them—were like, “Okay; obviously, there’s so much research out there about screens and screen time. Let’s find out what we all agree on.”
This is very fascinating; because basically, in short, you’ve got all kinds of parents going, “Hey, I need to start watching how much time my kids are video gaming”; right? “My daughter’s spending so much time watching Netflix that she’s watching entire seasons of shows in one day”; as if we don’t ever binge Netflix; right? [Laughter] People are starting to say, “This is affecting us”; right?
So these two researchers said, “Let’s see; is it affecting us?” That was the question they asked. Right as COVID is happening, they literally concluded their data in the middle of 2020; and they put all the data together. All these researchers put their data in—all these studies about screen time, and social media, and everything—basically they said, “What do we agree on?”
This is fascinating; the researchers came up with two things they absolutely agree on:
- The first thing they agree on was, hands down, we are in an unprecedented mental health crisis right now; it’s worse than it’s ever been before. That’s one thing they all agreed on.
One of the other things they couldn’t agree on was: “Well, what’s the why?” Guess what?
- The second thing they agreed on is this: “If you look at all of screen time, and try to cast some blame, the evidence is really weak and inconsistent. But if you narrow the study down to just social media, especially young girls, the data is consistent and very conclusive that the amount of social media time someone spends affects their mental health big time.”
As a matter of fact, these researchers went on to actually recommend: “Parents, pay attention to how much time they’re spending on places online, where they are getting ‘Likes’ and ‘Followers’; and they’re being rated by the things they do/by their performance.”
Think about this: this isn’t just Instagram and TikTok®; this is if your kid wants a YouTube channel—and all of a sudden, they start doing Legos on YouTube or they start doing something on YouTube—and immediately, they’re: “How many people follow me?” “How many people like me?” So yes, even YouTube. Whenever someone is putting themselves out there, and being rated and being liked, they said limit that to just one or two hours a day. As a matter of fact, they went and gave specific recommendations of things you should do; fascinating study.
In my chapter in Parenting Generation Screen, I talk about that—and “What can we do as parents?”—because this is something we need to watch. Believe it or not, it’s not the amount of time they spend streaming Netflix. Now, granted there are studies out there, that if your kid games, for example, 12 hours a day, there can be some consequences; because if your kid doesn’t go outside, he’s more likely to be obese/more likely to have sleep problems. I mean, there’s all kinds of stuff like that.
I’m not saying “Let your kid game as much as they want.” They’re just saying, when it comes to this mental health crisis, and people are trying to look for what’s causing it, they narrowed down on: “This social media is definitely affecting us; especially, our daughters.”
Dave: You know, your daughter mentions that in the book—that she walked through a real struggle—talk about that, as a dad.
Jonathan: Yes; it’s funny how much I saw that. I, having a son and having two daughters, I saw my son constantly being sucked in by gaming. I’m not saying that “No girls game”; there are girl gamers. But literally, when you look at the Common Sense Media reports, about the hours per day on average, young boys average over an hour where young girls average like 17 minutes a day or something like that; I mean, it’s very small by comparison. You see gaming affecting young guys way more.
You see social media kind of drawing in—and granted, all kids love social media—but girls in particular seem to sucked into that a little bit more. They get caught up in the drama a little bit more, and really focusing on the: “Well, I just posted this picture of my dog; and I saw Taylor posted a picture of her dog. She got 467 ‘Likes’ but I only got 62 ‘Likes.’ Why did she get 4…I mean, why?” All of a sudden, she starts feeling bad about herself.
When it comes down to it—and we’ve all heard those stories—but to also see the research is saying, “Yes, this is affecting our daughters; and we need to monitor how much time they’re spending on social media, because they’re feeling bad about themselves.”
For us, as parents, sometimes that means simple helpful boundaries; like: “No Tech Zones” in the house: “No tech at the table” for example. Having family dinner be a place where screens are not—Dad, no screen out; Mom, no screen out; put it away!—you don’t need work to reach you during that half hour. Have that be a cherished time where—guess what?—face-to-face connection is happening in a screen-to-screen world, where you’re just talking with each other.
We need to start being pro-active about creating some of these conversation moments in our home, and teach our kids how to actually have a conversation, and that they don’t need to be staring at that device 24/7 to get any sort of gratification about who they are.
Ann: I love that you talk about how important that relationship is with our kids—that we’re constantly having that dialogue, where we want to know them/we want them to know us—I think that’s so critical today. It’s not happening as much because we are on our screens—all of us—including parents.
Jonathan: I think sometimes, as parents, we feel this pressure to block out all the bad stuff.
Jonathan: Parents will sometimes walk up after my parent workshop—they’ll walk up to me; they’ll hand me a device—and they’ll be like, “Show me how to stop all the bad stuff from being on this. This is my daughter’s phone.” And they expect me to nerd out and: [sounding like a robot] “Okay, so at first, you go to the settings; and then you take this and you block out…”
Honestly, it’s like we get sometimes so thinking we need to block—and I’ll confess; I think that’s where I messed up as a parent—I think that’s one of the many areas where I messed up is I think, sometimes, I was so worried about blocking out the lies, where I should have been more concerned about telling the truth. I think I should have been more focused on sharing the truth with our kids. Sometimes, as parents, we feel so ill equipped to have these conversations with our kids; we’re like, “Okay, how can I tell them about all this stuff being bad?” Don’t even go there; open up God’s Word.
During COVID, I remember meeting with a bunch of families in the neighborhood; and we started having COVID church. It was by a pond outside, because it was summer; and it was by a barn so we called it “Barn Church.” For Barn Church, we’d sit; and we’d social distance; and put our lawn chairs out; and there’s a beautiful breeze. We just started going through Scripture.
Literally, I was kind of the minister there; they were like, “Jonathan, do a little talk”; so I started doing these ten-minute talks. The kids loved it: “Ten-minute talks.” They were like, “I wish all sermons were this short; this would be great!” I would do these ten-minute talks, and we started going through the Beatitudes.
You know what’s interesting about this? As we’re going through the Beatitudes, and we’re going through Jesus’s teaching about how we don’t need to be worried about status, or money, or any of this; but instead this kingdom living is this living where, all of a sudden, we’re humble; we’re compassionate. He starts painting this different picture.
What was interesting is kids were kind of listening to this—and they’re going, “Wow, that’s a different kind of teaching,”—which by the way, it was. A couple of thousand years ago, it was a different kind of teaching too. “That’s different. You mean I don’t have to worry about how popular I am? I don’t have to worry about how much money I make? Funny, because every song I’m listening to talks about how much money I make and how popular I am.”
They’re making those connections in their head. I never had to say, “By the way, the most recent song, as you know, talks about….” I didn’t even have to do that; they were thinking it, because they were sitting there, seeing the truth. The more we tell our kids the truth, the more they’ll recognize the lies.
Ann: Yes, I think that’s really good. I’m thinking of the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”—I think about the kid that feels rejected, or they didn’t get all the “Likes”—“for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That’s what I think as we finish up this day. For us to speak truth to our kids of their identity in Christ—that He has knit us together in our mother’s womb; we are fearfully and wonderfully made—to give our kids something bigger to live for; to be looking at our culture and say, “How can we pray about this?” I think that’s the power.
We can be so caught up in what we shouldn’t do, or what we shouldn’t allow our kids to do; but we have so much power and influence, even with our kids/our teen kids. They want to know: “Do we care? Do we hear them? Do we see them? Are we listening to them?” We have way more power than we realize as parents.
Dave: I think, as your title of your book says, that needs to be done, face to face, looking across the dinner table; or a family room; or sitting in your car with your son or daughter, looking them in the eye and speaking life rather than—you could text it; that’s good—but it’s not as good as face to face, and you can really make a difference.
Jonathan: You know, when kids are hearing truth like—“I’ve been crucified with Christ; I no longer live but Christ lives in me, [Galatians 2:20]”—such a contrast to anything else they’re seeing at the time; which is, “Look at me. More ‘Likes’/more ‘followers.’” It’s like, “No, no, no; here’s what matters: Christ in me.”
Bob: It is not unusual for teenagers to reach a point, where they start to push away from us as parents. They are developing their independence; they want to make their own decisions and call their own shots. As parents, it’s easy for us to go, “Well, I guess they’ve got this. I guess I need to back off.” I think what we’ve been hearing this week is: “No, we need to stay engaged. And even when they may be pushing back, we need to say, ‘I’m going to walk through this with you,’ whether it’s issues related to screens and digital life or any issue your child is facing.
Jonathan McKee has written a helpful guide for us, as parents, to coach us on how to think about how we parent Generation Screen; it’s called Parenting Generation Screen. We’re making this book available this week to any FamilyLife Today listener who would like a copy. We’re just asking that you would make a donation to support the ongoing work of this ministry.
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Let me also mention, Jonathan has also written a book for teens called The Teen’s Guide to Face-to-Face Connection in a Screen-to-Screen World to help them think through how they’re going to navigate the digital world. Maybe a good book for all of you to go through together. Again, check that book out on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com.
By the way, if you’ve not been to our website recently, let me encourage you to stop by and visit FamilyLifeToday.com. We have archives of thousands of past programs you can listen to on demand; you can download for free. We want our website to be a place where you can come regularly to find the answers to the questions you have about how you can build a strong, thriving marriage and family. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to learn more. Anytime you have question about a marriage or family-related issue, stop by our website; use the search engine and find articles, past programs, or resources we have available to help you with the issues you’re facing in your marriage and family. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com.
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to hear/we’re going to hear a God story. I think all of us have our own God story, how God has been at work in our lives/how He has shaped the circumstances and events of our lives. We’re going to hear tomorrow from Beth Robinson and Latayne Scott and hear some remarkable ways that God has directed their lives. I think you’re going to find this very interesting. I hope you can join us.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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