How doctors can help parents deal with children’s use of social media

Some state lawmakers and members of Congress are calling for regulation of social media, with some even seeking a ban on TikTok. Much of the legislative interest is driven by concerns about the impact of social media platforms on teen mental health.

But strong regulation may not be the best way forward, argues Michael Rich, MD, MPH, a pediatrician who has worked in the film industry for 12 years. He believes there is a way healthcare and social media can join forces.

Here comes the Digital Wellness Lab from Dr. Rich at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston — to mediate between technology companies and those concerned about the impact on children.

“The internet is here to stay. Mobile media is here to stay. We must learn not only to live with these devices and applications, but we must learn to thrive and use them to make us all healthier, smarter and kinder to one another,” said Dr. rich This is “in contrast to regulations, which are getting stricter because for years it’s been like playing slap the mole — you get a law against it and something else comes up.”

here is dr Rich’s take on how doctors and parents can better address social media, internet use, and screen time.

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Pay attention to basic needs

Pay attention to basic needs

The use of social media becomes a problem “when the basic needs of life are impaired. The first thing we see is sleep, especially in children who take their smartphones to bed,” said Dr. rich “The reality is they stay up late at night, they text, they’re on social media, they watch YouTube, so sleep is affected and so is homework.”

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Social media use can also have a negative impact on relationships. “These kids are withdrawn into their phones, laptops or game consoles and not spending time with family or friends,” he said. “We’ve convinced ourselves that the near-infinite connectivity these devices offer us is as good or better than the connectedness that’s really eroding.”

The AMA policy encourages elementary and secondary schools to include the issue of balancing screen time with physical activity and sleep in their health course curricula. The AMA also encourages primary care physicians to assess pediatric patients and educate parents about screen time, physical activity and sleep habits.

“Asking kids about media use is no longer a nice touch. We need to recognize that this is the environment children grow up in,” said Dr. rich “We need to anticipate that these kids are doing a lot on screens and we need to build that into our medical histories and into our proactive guidance for the future.”

“There are effective ways to use these screens and ways that — if used mindlessly — can actually harm kids,” he said.

American children ages 8 to 12 spend about four to six hours a day viewing or using screens. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), screen time increases by up to nine hours in teens.

For elementary school students and teens, the AAP recommends not letting media crowd out other important activities like good sleep, regular exercise, family meals, and unplugged downtime.

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Identify underlying issues

Identify underlying issues

It’s important to realize that unhealthy internet use is not an addiction. Instead, it’s a disorder called problematic interactive media use, which indicates underlying issues.

“We see it all as a set of symptoms and manifestations of things like ADHD, anxiety disorders and mood disorders,” said Dr. rich “These behaviors — when they get out of hand and start interfering with other aspects of our lives — are self-soothing behaviors.

“They are an attempt to make you feel better. It’s not the device that’s doing it to us. What we do with the device or the application gets us in trouble,” he added. “At our clinic, we have yet to find one in the hundreds of children we’ve seen who didn’t have an underlying psychological issue that they were trying to soothe.”

“So it’s really about paying attention to our behavior with this interactivity, rather than the device doing something to us,” said Dr. rich