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How to Talk to Your Teen about Smart Phones & Mental Health

By Linda Olszewski, PsyD

When I first researched the relationship between screen time and health in 2010, the topic was barely on people’s radars. Yet smart phones were everywhere and had already been heavily incorporated into parents’ and children’s lives—and affected how they interacted with each other.

Today, there is increasing concern from parents and the general public about the impact of smart phones and social media on children. One recent study shows a possible correlation between time spent on smart devices and symptoms of depression among teens, especially girls.

Even though it’s far from clear that smart phones or social media are CAUSING depression, these studies have sparked understandable concern. It makes sense if, as a parent, you’re not sure how to address smart phone use and mental health. We learn most of our parenting behaviors from our own parents, but the proliferation of smart phones is relatively new, leaving us without a go-to guide.

It’s important to realize that smart phones and social media are here to stay, no matter how much we resent certain changes they’ve brought about. Demonizing smart phones isn’t necessarily helpful, especially when they’re used for so many different activities, from school work to games to talking with friends to social media to reading.

First, here’s how new media might be affecting teens’ mental health.

The internet takes up outside time. Today, children are spending less time outdoors than many adults who are incarcerated—about 4-7 minutes of unstructured outdoor play each day, compared to 7 hours of screen time. Outdoor time allows children to use and develop their imaginations, and move their bodies (which is crucial for both physical and emotional health).

Screen time means less social time. Having strong social circles is an important part of emotional resilience and mental health.  Friendships help teens explore who they are, gain confidence, and take healthy risks. Unfortunately, socializing online doesn’t have the same effect on our well-being as socializing in person. Spending less time actually with friends may be contributing to social isolation. (Though my colleague points out that social media can sometimes play a positive role in teens’ lives, especially when they already feel isolated from their classmates.)

Social media intensifies the pursuit of perfection. Our society has long put pressure on individuals to be (or at least appear to be) perfect. The rise of social media has taken that to a whole new level. Social media can create anxiety about how many people follow you, or how many likes a post has gotten. Because social media lets people curate how the world sees them, teens can think that everyone else is happier, smarter and has more friends than them. This may intensify any symptoms of depression that  teen may already be experiencing.

So how can parents be active in helping young people develop emotional resilience in the age of the smart phone?

Here’s what parents can do:

1. Talk about why. Instead of just setting limits for how long teens can be on their phone, talk to your children about why you’re concerned. Giving teens the information they need to make smart choices helps them develop their decision-making skills.

2. Talk about mindfulness and emotional health. Making smart phones and social media the enemy isn’t helpful. Instead of just emphasizing the dangers of smart phones, talk about the importance of mental health and self-care. Learning how to practice mindfulness is a great skill set for any teen (or adult). Being mindful on social media can help young people identify what makes them feel sad, tense, anxious or bad about themselves—and ultimately curb those behaviors. You can learn more about how to be mindful on social media here.

3. Emphasize family time. Being connected to others is one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves. Schedule quality, phone-free family time. It’s important for parents to practice what they preach. If you make a no-phones-during-dinner rule, the parents need to follow it too.

4. Emphasize outdoor time. Physical activity is great for physical and mental health, and is a great chance to soak up some vitamin D.

5. Value well-being over success. Being healthy isn’t the same thing as being successful. Make sure your teen knows that academics aren’t everything, and don’t measure how good of a person they are. Part of growing up is learning how to take care of yourself—which includes figuring out how to balance work, school, friends, health and more.

6. Let them know how to get help. Make sure your teen knows that you’re there for them and won’t judge them if they need help. Keep in mind, though, that it’s normal for teens to avoid going to their parents for help. Make sure they know they can turn to a health care provider, guidance counselor, or other trusted adult.

Of course, it can be difficult to tell when your teen is dealing with normal stress, and when it’s time to get help. If your teen experiences any of the following, it may be time to talk to them about therapy:

  • Excessive isolation
  • Frequent lying
  • Keeping things hidden from you and their friends
  • If they seem overwhelmed or paralyzed with fear or anxiety, such as refusing to go to school or feeling unable to do school work
  • Long-lasting depressed moods
  • Self-harm, such as cutting
  • Sudden weight gain or loss
  • Sleep deprivation

If your teen is 10-22 years old and lives near NYC, they can access completely free, confidential, comprehensive health care (including mental health services) at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, where I work.

Linda Escobar Olszewski, PsyD is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.

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