It’s easy to see how social media can be a major source of anxiety in our children. As adults, we often struggle with anxiety from social media pressures also. The difference between adults and children is that, as adults, we have more life experience and social development to understand the importance of limits and boundaries that best support our mental health. One study found that, “48 percent of teens who spend five hours per day on an electronic device have at least one suicide risk factor, compared to 33 percent of teens who spend two hours a day on an electronic device.”
Our children and teens are learning how to establish limits and emotional control, all while the decision-making part of their brain hasn’t fully developed. It’s up to us as parents to be aware of the risks and step in to guard our children from unnecessary anxiety and work to keep them as healthy as possible.
The environment of comparison is one of the sources of anxiety kids face on social media. As Christian parents, our goal is to foster an environment that teaches our children that their identity is in Christ. He has called them his children, and they are so valuable to him that he knows every hair on their head.
“What is the price of five sparrows—two copper coins? Yet God does not forget a single one of them. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7).
As much as we want our children to understand the value they have in Christ, they are in a spiritual battle on Earth where they receive many messages telling them they are not enough. Messages of comparison on social media wage war on their worth, like seeing a friend receive fifty likes for a picture while they only receive ten. The implied comparison feels like a social scoring, as it might look like not having a large enough number of “friends” on their account. Or they may constantly see pictures of their friends going on trips or receiving expensive gifts they aren’t receiving. There are many ways social media can make them feel less than their peers. It’s important to talk to your kids about these concerns and help them see through the lies they face.
Another element of social media that is a big cause of anxiety is outright bullying. I feel for kids growing up these days; when I was growing up, whatever drama I dealt with at school stayed at school instead of following me home. Now, when social media is always on, whatever they are dealing with at school continues after they leave the building. If your kids are in the midst of an argument with a friend there is a good chance there could also be negative things said about the argument on their social media account, or passive aggressive posts about the situation.
Bullying is often blatant online, and might look like others attacking the things they post or say, or writing slanderous posts directly against them. It’s important to recognize the amount of blatant and subtle ways bullying might occur to understand the amount of conflict your kids might be facing online and the increased anxiety that will follow along with it.
Our kids are still learning how to engage conflict, and don’t always have the wisdom to navigate it well. The Apostle Paul understands this when he says, “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Kids don’t have the brain development, experience, and emotional regulation skills to deal with many of the toxic things they are confronted with online.
Social media is also helping to create poor communication skills within our kids, that can not only increase their anxiety in the present but also create negative patterns of communication that will affect them the rest of their lives. The more we communicate online the more room is left for miscommunication and conflict.
So much of our communication is nonverbal that it’s not surprising that so much of our messages would be missed while communicating through written text. This was a big lesson for me during the pandemic, I found myself getting into many more arguments with others as more of my communication was occurring through text or social media. I had to learn how to get back into the groove of having phone or face to face conversations when it was something I needed to confront or say that could be misinterpreted.
With the reliance on social media and texting that is occurring these days our kids are learning that this is the best way to communicate. Yet when our kids don’t get a reply back from someone, or the reply back seems harsh or cold it has a direct impact on their insecurity and increases anxiety within them. Encouraging our kids to keep their important communication in person or on the phone will help decrease some of these issues, and also set them up for a lifetime of learning how to directly communicate with others.
Another source of anxiety is thin communication. When the conversation isn’t face to face, we are less likely to filter what we say. When you don’t have the direct accountability of saying something directly to the person's face, it’s easier to give into the temptation of saying mean or slanderous things. This can be seen in many of the social media arguments that take place, many harsh things that are said back and forth would have never been as easily said in person. The Bible discusses the importance of keeping our replies kind, and how much of an affect the words we choose can have on a situation.
“A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare” (Proverbs 15:1).
How true is this? When someone comes at us with love and gentleness our guard is lowered and we no longer feel the need to have to defend ourselves, yet when someone comes at us harshly we are instantly on the defense.
There are so many ways social media is waging war on the mental health of our children, and we are the ones who need to stand up and protect them. In the book “The Men We Need,” author Brant Hansen discusses the importance of protecting our kids as they are forming, and not allowing unnecessarily images and content that they aren’t meant to have the capacity to handle.
“Childhood is their time to be protected and formed, not sent into battle. It’s the time a great protector and gardener will use to allow the precious seedling to take root” (The Men We Need, by Brant Hansen pg.97).
Every family is different, some might allow their kids full access to social media and others may say that their kids are not allowed to have any access at all. Every kid is different and what might be okay for one child, isn’t for another. Parents have a very special role in their kids' lives because they are the people who know their children better than anyone else, and are the best people to be their gatekeeper. Parents stand in the gap to make the hard decisions and protect their children when they need sheltering.
Social media can be both a positive and negative thing, it can be used to both connect and divide us. We are all in the midst of a spiritual battle, and the enemy is finding new ways to attack. As parents we need to be aware of the battles our kids are facing on social media, and the ways it can directly impact their mental health and increase their anxiety. We need to work on having open communication with our children about these issues that they face, and not be afraid to set limits for them to best protect them.
As parents we also need to work on mirroring the importance of limits on social media in our own life, and show them how to use it in the healthiest way possible if it is something we have chosen to engage in. We should be checking in on our kids, providing them with the mental health help they need as they need it, and providing them with a safe environment to talk about the struggles they are facing.
Rev. Joel Vande Werken
Rev. Joel Vande Werken