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More and more teens are spending countless hours glued to their phones and social media feeds. But as you probably suspected, that comes with potential dangers—especially to their mental health.

A recent study in the January issue of EClinicalMedicine says teen girls are more inclined to be depressed if they use social media too much. The study pulled data from more than 10,000 14-year-olds and results revealed that the more time they spent on social media, the more depressive symptoms they showed. These include body image issues, low self-esteem, problems with cyber harassment and poor sleep, all of which are associated with depression in young people— particularly girls.

While these results are alarming, the truth is teens predisposed to depressive behaviors tend to consume themselves with social media, so the link between the two isn’t cut and dry.

FIGURING OUT THEIR WHY

Social media isn’t inherently good or bad. It depends on who’s using it, how they’re using it and why. It all comes down to whether your teen’s usage negatively affects her everyday life. If homework, quality time with family or sleep are being put on the back burner, it’s probably time to take action.

“When it comes to healthy socialization, I encourage parents to help tweens and teens ‘figure out their why,’” suggests Ana Homayoun, teen and millennial expert and author of Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World. “Why are they reaching for their phone and posting or engaging in social media or videos? If they see drama online, do they fester, engage or remove themselves? How do their daily habits reflect their overall goals for themselves?”

Teens who have trouble making connections and interacting face-to-face often use social media to find community. Homayoun says, “When students feel a sense of belonging, inclusiveness and support from their peers, that can certainly be positive. Some students may not experience a sense of belonging within their school community, but feel as though their extended relatives or camp friends might provide support, so they stay in touch via social media.”

While many adults see virtual friendships as less legitimate or even harmful, Homayoun says that’s not necessarily the case. “I think parents need to familiarize themselves with the research and understand that each teen is different,” Homayoun says. “Families should aim to set up proactive guidelines for online use and real-life experiences that promote social, emotional and mental wellness.”

DIALING DOWN PHONE USE

If you think it’s time to wean her off her device, here are some pro tips for doing so without too much of a fight:

  • Choose daily and weekly digital detox times so you can all get a break (think no phones at dinner or in the bedroom, or a few hours tech-free per night).
  • Figure out how much time your teen’s spending on her devices and what she’s doing during that time. Homayoun suggests parents use Apple’s Screen Time controls (iPhones) or Google Family Link (Androids) to find out how often their devices are being used and how their screen time is spread across different apps (you can even restrict him from using his phone at certain times).
  • Find out why she uses social media before snatching her phone. “It’s much more about having conversations and helping students start to have intrinsic motivation around developing good daily habits than it is about just cutting off use,” says Homayoun.

If you’re worried tech exacerbates your teen’s depressive symptoms, have an open, judgment-free conversation in which you let her know she can turn to you with a problem—but don’t be offended if she doesn’t spill to you or your partner. “As kids get older, they might not necessarily turn to their parents,” says Homayoun, “but it’s key that parents help tweens and teens identify who and where they can turn to for help.”

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