The sounds are all too familiar. A ping, a chirp, a pulse; a fun ring tone or a simple vibration for a text, a tweet, an Instagram post, a Snapchat picture. Hard to resist looking; hard to resist responding. We have all become Pavlov’s dogs. The bell rings and we salivate – or at least jump to look at who is reaching out to us. Kids – and parents, too – are suffering a new kind of social anxiety—one that I call “Twitter anxiety, Snapchat insanity, and Instagram depression.”
Many are becoming obsessed with how many “likes” their post has, whether an Instagram photo includes them, whether a friend will text us back with the kind of speed that makes us feel as though we are important to them. Social media can be both “a-social” and “anti-social.” We have to take control of it so it doesn’t take control of us.
If these currents are difficult for us as parents to navigate, imagine how vulnerable our children are to feeling left out or misunderstood. Kids need to learn how handle posts and tweets with balance and maturity and to avoid undue anxiety when notifications come in – and especially when they don’t.
As parents, we need to help our kids deal with FOMO – the “Fear of Missing Out.” Below are five areas that you can work with your child help reduce social media anxiety.
- Empathy: We parents still remember the times when we were not included in a gathering (we may still feel the familiar sting when it happens today). This the experience of “missing out” is a reality for many of our kids. When they seem anxious about a text not coming in or photos of an activity they are not in, help them find words for their concern and plan an alternative way of communicating with their friends. If they are sad about missing out, lend them a non-judgmental ear and give them some space to talk about their feelings.
- Strategy: Sometimes the anxiety with social media is driven by practical needs—homework, extracurricular activities, sports practices and gatherings. If they are anxious about a homework question or details about getting together, prompt them to actually place a phone call! Know what alternative resources are available to your child for school-related questions through the school’s website, teachers’ emails, and newsletters. If a gathering is purely social, that may be a time for you as a parent connect with the other parents to facilitate communication and help confirm plans.
- Limits and Boundaries: Most kids have difficulty with impulse control. Help them manage this by agreeing on some family limits on social media that also apply to you! Turning off the phone and social media will be hard at first, but it will help curb the incessant checking. You and your kids can let friends know that calls and texts cannot be answered after a certain time. Unplug. Corral the technology for a certain time in a designated space. Including yours! It’s OK.
- Be Informed: It is very difficult for parents to stay current with trends. Kids are often using new apps before their parents even know they exist. Educate yourself about what is popular with our kids and their friends. Become aware of is posted so you can be empathetic to your child’s experiences, whether they be good or painful. Recruit an ally in the form of an older nephew, niece, or friend who is connected to your child through social media to keep a look out on what your child seems to be doing and experiencing in social media and to help you stay abreast of what is really going on.
- Model: Model healthy social media behavior with your children. Don’t text and drive; don’t exhibit “Facebook Envy” by comparing your mundane life to the seemingly more glamorous lives posted by your friends. Create opportunities to talk about FOMO – those feelings of being left out – and work with your child to make plans for shared activities and face-to-face conversations they can have with their friends. In the end, a fun time actually spent with a friend will do far more for your child’s self-esteem than a day spent nose to the screen.
It’s a long battle, so be tenacious. But also be empathetic to their losses even if they seem trivial to you. Be a model in how you handle your own social habits and disappointments. Be mindful that anxiety is real and can take one over. Help your child learn to take positive social actions rather than living life responding to a ping and a ding!
Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD
Dr Charlene Underhill Miller, a psychotherapist in Southern California, working with parents, couples and families. She is a frequent and popular speaker to community groups, a professor, a wife and mother. www.underhillmiller.com