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How Social Media Use in Parents Affects Teen Mental Health

Recent research by Dr. Sarah Coyne suggests that parental use of social media can affect depression rates in teenagers.

From CEO’s to soccer moms and dean's list scholars to dropouts, everyone is affected by the amount of time spent on screens. Recent research published by Sarah Coyne from Brigham Young University suggests that parental use of social media along with parenting styles may be related to the depression rates and levels of their teenagers.

man on his phone
Photo by Unsplash

The Research

Sarah Coyne is the associate director of BYU’s School of Family Life. Her research interests include media, children, aggression, and family. Coyne has been published in over ten academic journals regarding these subjects. Most recently, her research found that warm, responsive, and engaged parenting was strongly protective of teen mental health. This was concluded from a survey of 1,231 teenagers and parents using a national sample.

There are four main types of parenting styles that have been identified and recognized:

  1. Permissive: warm but lax
  2. Neglectful/uninvolved: Stern without enforcing
  3. Authoritarian: stern and demanding
  4. Authoritative: demanding but sensitive

It's common in most families to have multiple parenting styles present.

Authoritative parents are often nurturing, responsive, and supportive, yet set firm limits for their children. They attempt to influence children’s behavior by discussing, reasoning, and explaining rules. Children raised with this style tend to be friendly, energetic, cheerful, self-reliant, self-controlled, curious, and cooperative.

family playing board games together
Photo by Bill Branson

The Findings

Coyne’s study found that an authoritative style of parenting resulted in the most positive outcomes for children. Of those in this study, only 13% of the teens whose parents used an authoritative approach reported high levels of depression - six percent lower than the national average and ten percent lower than Utah’s average. In contrast to this are the parents who were less responsive and loving. For the teens that experienced this style of parenting, 88% of them reported high levels of depression. Coyne and her research team also found a correlation between a parent's use of social media and their parenting. Parents who used social media for more than seven hours a day exhibited lower levels of warm parenting, which, as was noted earlier, is related to higher levels of depression in their teens.

Sarah Coyne pointed out that the social media use of parents is not yet linked as a direct cause to their child’s mental health. “The findings,” she explains, “point to the possibility that some kids feel their caregivers ignore them and their needs when a device is present.” The same would be true in the reverse direction: parents that set their phones down as much as they encourage their kids to would spend more time with them developing a relationship that could foster a more responsive and loving environment.

What to Make of It

  1. Set a good example
    Being in the role of parent or guardian, or for the case of those without kids, simply an adult, doesn’t make anybody immune to the negative effects of social media. Specifically, the consistent comparison encouraged by scrolling through the best of people’s lives and time it takes you away from being with family and friends. Setting boundaries and time limits are not just good suggestions for youth and young people, but also for adults. Treating yourself to time away from screens and social media sets a good example to those around you: kids or not.
  2. Create a safe space
    Safe space is the new buzzword everywhere from classrooms to office spaces. One of the reasons for this is because fear of being judged is a barrier to establishing good relationships. Letting home be a place where listening reigns and questions can be asked is a key to open communication.
  3. Communicate openly
    Rather than imposing rules out of fear, try emphasizing talking to children about what they’re seeing. Encourage them to practice compassion for themselves and others when inevitable negative comparisons start to be made. Actively and often discussing emotions, accomplishments, morals, and values keeps doors and windows open so when life hits, starting these conversations can be easier.

There’s no Fix-All Solution
While research and studies such as this are helpful in learning what works overall, every family and every child is unique. Data coupled with personal experience is what will be best for your family.

If you or your family is finding it difficult to find a balance of emotional regulation call 801-422-7759 to inquire if family counseling could be helpful for you.