A real connection? Navigating social media, potential risks to your child's mental health

Navigating social media, potential risks to your child's mental health

MADISON, Wis. - Malakai Murphy aspires to be, in his words, a computer geek.  The goal is to be a real-life Peter Parker.

What's helpful to him are the 20 or so games on his phone. He says using his hand and brain in that way relaxes him. Like many of his peers, the incoming Sun Prairie High School sophomore also logs onto social media apps on a regular basis.

"I'm honestly that guy that thinks technology is going to take over the world someday," Malakai said.

Armani Benson remembers getting his first computer when he was 12 years old. Now going into his sophomore year at Sun Prairie High School, he admits he barely touched the technology until he realized he could do more than just play the games on it.

"It was kind of just like the basics, you know, putting buttons in and stuff like that. Now I can make games and stuff where you'll be able to go into the web," Armani said.

During a coding boot camp run by UW-Madison, Armani and Malakai have both created game applications. Now, the teens say it's an inevitable part of their futures.

"It's something I can get into and do for hours and hours," Armani said. "It's something, you can try different things, experiment, and that's kind of what I love about it."

"It's just cool," Malakai added. "I start from nothing and it turns into something big."

As an avid social media user, Armani is looking forward to creating his own combination of Reddit, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram.  He wants to find a way to combine the best elements of those apps in one place, but even he admits he and his peers are probably on their phones and computers too much.

"I have seen people trying to test kids, seeing if they can put their phone down for a day, and it drives them crazy," Armani said. "I don't like how that's affecting people, but yeah, it's something we have to work on, you know."

For parents, the possibility of more social media in their kids’ lives can be concerning.  A number of studies have already linked time on those sites with negative effects on mental health, particularly for those younger users.

The site creators have openly admitted that the more people use social media, the more it can affect a user’s mental health.  Most people compare themselves to others on their newsfeed, which can have noticeable effects on a person’s self-esteem.  

SSM Health therapist Britt Coolman says the more a person is logged on to social media, the higher the risk of significant consequences.

"There's research that indicates the more time someone spends on social media, so the greater that usage gets, the more likely that it is to impact mood and more likely to have symptoms of depression," Coolman said.

Other research has linked comparing yourself to others online to anxiety.

Coolman says cyberbullying continues to be a significant concern as well.

"When there is cyberbullying going on, sometimes there's still a really strong fascination with going on social media and being exposed to this negative content. So sometimes, that's when I'll suggest parents to intervene a little bit more," Coolman said.

Coolman adds that totally banning our kids from social media probably isn’t the answer. She recognizes that for some teens, those sites and apps are their only means of connecting with others and getting social support. That said, Coolman says it’s reasonable for parents to put limits on the time their kids spend on social media.

"I think it can be helpful when people are trying to be more transparent in terms of being more real on social media," Coolman said. "So I think that can help us to balance out seeing these real idealized images."

Armani and Malakai say they’re prone to post the more interesting moments of their lives, but they urge kids to be as real as possible online.

"I never really looked at it as 'I wish I could be like this person' or 'I wish I could do this.' It was more like, that's cool," Malakai said.

While they’re unsure what it would look like, the two teens are looking forward to working together on a new app in the future, one they hope could help users, not hurt them.

"I want to do something that's helpful," Malakai said.

Click here to learn more about the precollege and youth programs at UW-Madison, like the coding boot camp Armani and Malakai participated in this summer.

For more on the positive and negative effects of social media and advice on helping our kids navigate the sites, watch our extended interview with Britt Coolman.

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