Cyber anxiety and the excessive use of social media

The excessive use of social media can lead to anxiety and depression

You’d never put a pack of cigarettes in your child’s hands. It’s not only dangerous, it’s addictive. But according to a study from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, social media can be just as addictive — or more so — than cigarettes.

As reported in Digital Journal in February 2012, “The strong desire for electronic communications appears to trump” cigarettes and alcohol, a study of adults showed.

So imagine how much more vulnerable our children are to the temptations of texting, obsessively “checking in” at favorite sites, documenting their meals and lives on Instagram, and, even more tempting because of its fleeting nature (here today, gone in 24 hours or less), Snapchat.

What comes first?

Teens and tweens are driven to check their mobile phones incessantly because of FOMO (the fear of missing out). Being afraid of missing out can create anxiety around social media. But there’s also research showing that kids with anxiety are more likely to use social media instead of interacting in person.

According to Lynn Lyons, LICSW, co-author of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents (Health Communications, Inc.), “Anxiety is common. Research shows that as many as one in eight children have a diagnosable anxiety disorder, and the number is rising.”

Virtually all kids, diagnosed or not, experience some anxiety, but factors such as genetics, temperament and stressful life events increase the risk of developing anxiety, Lyons said. The good news is, it’s treatable.

Lyons has a private practice in Concord specializing in anxious families. “What happens in terms of social skills and communication skills,” she said, “is that you miss out on tone of voice, intonation and other subtle cues” with social media.

“This can be a real problem as kids develop the ability to communicate honestly and openly, because they aren’t learning how to pick up on social cues.”

This disconnect gets in the way of developing empathy. In a conversation, according to Lyons, “You can see if you’ve said something that hurts someone’s feelings by the expression on their face,” and say “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.” Then you can rephrase it or change your tone.

While the numbers vary slightly from study to study, experts agree that approximately 90 to 93 percent of all communication is nonverbal. According to the book Silent Messages, 7 percent of any message is conveyed through words, 38 percent through tone of voice and intonation, and 55 percent through facial expressions, posture and gestures.

With social media, said Lyons, “Kids are bolder. They’re not in front of somebody, so it’s easier to say something when you’re not there watching the person’s reaction.”

Andrea Paquette, APRN, a holistic nurse practitioner and pediatric mental health specialist at Choices Counseling in Londonderry, noted that typical anxiety about fitting in with peers is heightened with social media, “because it’s 24/7. Kids are tuned in all day and half the night, instead of just after school, or at home. Now they can be ‘with’ their friends without being physically present,” Paquette said.

“Kids would much rather interact virtually online than in person,” because it’s easier. “But this constant connection has really made more kids more anxious when they have to interact with others in person, because they just don’t have the in-person experience.”

Hand in hand with anxiety, in some children, is perfectionism and the urge to compare, Lyons said. “Socially anxious kids compare a lot.”

This can exacerbate anxiety around social media. A kid who is not as “connected” or in the loop in the social media milieu at school — who learns via Instagram, Snapchat or text that “everyone” is at a party except him or her — wonders, “How come I wasn’t invited?” Or, “I didn’t know everyone was going there after the game.” Result: epic FOMO.

It used to be that you didn’t know that you weren’t invited to a party. Now kids know almost instantly.

Then there’s the “mistaken assumption that other people’s lives are more perfect or interesting than yours,” that’s no longer just a perception. “Now you know what you’re missing out on,” said Lyons.

Kids who are already feeling disconnected and who don’t have a lot of friends aren’t imagining it; they’re seeing it. Adolescence, a typically awkward and sometimes agonizing passage of life, is made even more awkward.

Phone-y security blanket

Some kids get so dependent on talking to their friends that the phone is like a security blanket, Paquette said.

“There has to be a happy medium,” she added, “but it can be a tough thing to figure out.” Kids feel like they have to be in touch with their friends all the time, and “everything gets very dramatic and overblown because they talk about it over and over and half the night. They feed off each other.”

Then there are multiple platforms such as FaceTime and Skype. Teens are so tech savvy, Paquette said. They can be on group chats, and three or four platforms, at 10 p.m. and midnight. “Then they start following people they don’t know, and it gets really messy. Then a lot of their life is online instead of in person.”

Before social media, kids would be sleeping. They couldn’t have a friend over on a weeknight. If they had a problem, they could talk to a parent.

For anxious and depressed tweens and teens that spent a ton of time with their phones, it’s easy to find a group of like-minded kids who are also depressed. They also feed off of each other’s anxiety.

Social media isn't all bad, according to Paquette, if you can find a good balance. It can help kids take care of themselves, for example, a quick text to check on homework, or getting rides with one another.

“But especially in the early tween and teen years, social media use needs to be monitored. It’s so easy for them to get caught up in it.”

Danger lurking in cyberspace

There are a number of reasons to be concerned about giving your child unlimited access—through computer and a mobile device that now acts like one—to the worldwide web.

Girls who used to exclude others from cliques now cyberbully. Shy boys and girls who used to exchange notes in class can now sext each other. Everyone—grownups included—feels anonymous and entitled to reveal what they really think online. The worst part? It’s virtually permanent, and can go global in seconds.

“It’s ten-fold or worse now,” Paquette said. “There lots of sex stuff going on and a lot more online because you’re not face-to-face with anybody. Kids say mean things. If a child has anxiety and can’t manage conversations in real life, they do it online.” And vulnerable kids are targeted online.

Paquette has seen kids in her practice who “have ‘relationships’ online across the country, having whole relationships online with someone they’ve never met, because there’s a lot of pressure to be paired up, and they don’t have any experience talking with a girl face to face.”

Of course, who knows whom that tween is “chatting” with, or where they are. It could be a predator sitting in a car outside their home.

Because they’re young, kids do stupid, impulsive things. But the consequences can be dire. We’ve seen the headlines: teen charged with child pornography, having to register as a sex offender, because of trading inappropriate photos with others.

“Sending pictures can get way out of hand online because you’re not in person. It’s not someone your parents know or that your family goes to church with,” said Paquette.

According to a CNN study of 200 eighth-graders over six months whose social media use was monitored by child development experts, 60 percent of parents “underestimated how lonely, worried and depressed their kids were.”

The study, made into a documentary called #Being13, also showed that 94 percent of parents underestimated the amount of fighting that goes on through social media.

It starts with you

Parents need to model a healthy use of social media, versus a chronic dependence on their phone or tablet. Once a child has a mobile device, rules need to be set.

Primary for the entire family should be no devices at meals and turn off all “screens” an hour before bedtime, Paquette said.

“I recommend at any age that kids don’t have any screens in their room, especially at bedtime. Ideally, we all want to stop using devices an hour before sleep so our brains can shut down.”

Studies show that unplugging occasionally helps relieve stress—if you can do it without having a panic attack. And you can always catch up with ICYMI (in case you missed it). 

Mary Ellen Hettinger, APR is an award-winning reporter, editor and writer, and accredited public relations professional.

Categories: Depression and Anxiety