My teenage daughter’s social media use has become really obsessive

Ask the Expert: I am really worried about her obsessive behaviour. What can I do?

‘I have tried to take her phone away in the past and it was like world war three.’ Photograph: iStock

‘I have tried to take her phone away in the past and it was like world war three.’ Photograph: iStock

 

Question: I think my 16-year-old daughter is addicted to social media, particularly Instagram. I used to laugh about all the news reports about internet addiction in teenagers, but recently I am no longer laughing. My daughter’s use has become really obsessive.

One day we were out for a few hours and she burst into tears because she forgot her phone – she was panicking because she would be off social media for an hour! I see her constantly glued to her phone at every second. She has dinner with one eye on it and takes it to the bathroom, which is ridiculous. She does not even watch TV properly any more, being on social media while she is watching a programme. I know it is affecting her sleep, but she does not want to discuss it. When I raise it with her, she freaks out and attacks me saying I’m always online too.

I have tried to take her phone away in the past and it was like world war three – you would swear I was trying to torture her. And also now she is 16 and will be 17 in a week or two, I can’t just remove her phone – she is not a kid anymore. I’m really worried about it. Is social media addictive? What I should do about it?

Answer: Social media is designed to be addictive, for both adults and teenagers. The goal of Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, is to get users to spend as much as time as possible on their social media platforms websites and to lure you back should you ever leave. They employ clever marketing tactics such as frequent tailored notifications and reports of your “likes” and “retweets” so you are compelled to return and check. As a result we are all spending more time on social media, with teenagers being particularly affected.

In a recent large sample study conducted in the University of Glasgow, researchers found that more than a third of teenagers spent at least three hours a day on social media, with a fifth devoting at least five hours to the activity.

Of particular concern was the link between heavy social media use and disrupted sleep which is associated with poor mental health and reduced school performance.

In my own clinical practice, I have come across several young people addicted to social media and the internet, including one girl who would awake several times a night to check reactions to her social media posts and one boy who had a nocturnal existence, sleeping through the day and playing online video games all night, causing him to drop out of school. In both cases their internet use was clearly addictive and having a negative impact on their mental health and relationships. 

Adults as well as teenagers are equally affected by the internet and social media addiction. In his recent best-selling book, Notes on a Nervous Planet, the author Matt Haig outlines how spending too much time online is a key factor in his own depression and anxiety, while being “unplugged” and involved in real-life social relationships and activities are key factors in preserving his positive mental health. 

How can you help your daughter?

Given your daughter is nearly 17, there is limited value in adopting a strict rule-based approach and, for example, trying to impose a social media ban. Instead it is better to help her think critically about the issues of her internet use and to negotiate with her some good rules she might agree to.

A good way to do this is to raise the issue as a family problem and to ask her for help to sort things out. For example, you might start a conversation and say that you are concerned about everyone’s internet use in the home and wondering what family habits you should try to set in order to create balance. 

In the Parents Plus Programmes we recommend that parents sit down with their children and teenagers to negotiate a “Family Media Plan” by completing a form together, asking questions such as:

  • What are the good things about social media/screen use in our home?
  • What are the problems about social media/screen use in the home?
  • What is the maximum daily time each person should spend on social media?
  • What times should we unplug from social media? (eg family meals, after 8pm in evening)
  • What areas of the home should we keep social media free (eg bedrooms)
  • What other alternative things can we do instead of social media? (eg reading a book, art/crafts, exercise/going for a walk, meet friends personally)

The key to make this agreement work is about seeing the problem as much about your own behaviour as a parent as that of your teenagers. You are trying to establish some good family routines and habits that will have benefits for everyone. Some of the ideas might be difficult to agree, such as no social media in the bedroom and you might have to compromise. It can help to agree to give certain habits a trial for a week (eg banning phones from the dinner table or after 8pm, etc) and then review how everyone is getting on.

Also, creative solutions might help such as resorting back to older alarm clocks so phones don’t need to be in the bedroom, (and thus avoiding the temptation for middle of the night social media checking) or agreeing to use parental controls on everyone’s phone to set a daily time limit on social media sites.

While achieving an agreement about habits/rules is best, as a parent you can decide to impose an important house rule (eg no phones in bedrooms overnight) but I suggest you try to keep this “power of veto” to a minimum.

Ultimately, what works best is starting the conversation with your daughter about social media addiction and to encourage her to think critically about the issues so you can empower her to make her own best decisions in the long term.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is author of several parenting books, including Positive Parenting and Parenting Teenagers. See solutiontalk.ie

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