Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: My wife and I worry about how social media rules the lives of all four of our teens, especially our two daughters. I get that there must be some upsides, but mostly we see it making the kids stressed and anxious. Are we overreacting? Should we take their phones away?

Dear Reader: When you consider that the era of social media is already 15 years old (remember Myspace, which launched in 2003?), it means that today's teens have never lived in a world without it. According to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of teens either own a smartphone or have regular access to one. Ninety percent of teens say they go online multiple times per day, while almost half report being online "almost constantly."

While there can be real benefits to this kind of connectedness, it has become clear that the potential for negative behaviors and experiences is all too real. On the plus side, there is the chance to expand social circles and strengthen existing friendships.

But social media sites are also ripe for bullying, spreading rumors, ostracism and peer pressure. Another challenge is the stress associated with curating a social media presence, as well as the unrealistic expectations that get generated regarding physical appearance. And then there's the fact that this all takes place on public platforms and in real time, where the number of "likes" and the tenor of comments can wreak havoc on a teen's sense of self-worth. It's not surprising that you, like so many parents, are seeing your kids struggle.

When it comes to anxiety, no, you're not overreacting. Anxiety now tops depression as the main mental health issue among teens and young adults. That's not to say social media is the sole reason for this, but recent studies cite it as a contributing factor. Our teens grew up at the same time as the social media landscape. In a way, these kids have been the unofficial test subjects of this new means of social connection. And while it's tempting to ditch the smartphones and cancel the family's mobile plan, the truth is that social media is here to stay.

Instead, you're going to have to wade into the fray yourselves.

First, identify and learn the apps your kids are using. Snapchat and YouTube are the most popular at the moment. A year from now, it will likely be something different. The more you understand about the workings and nuances of your child's online platforms, the more likely she or he will be able to talk to you about them and to accept help if it's ever needed.

The goal here isn't to spy on or even "friend" your kids on social media, but to become fluent in the world that has so much of their attention. We also think it's a good idea to implement a family program -- that means kids AND adults -- of screen hygiene. Put devices away during homework, during meals and at bedtime. Yes, you're worried about the kids, but we know from experience that the grown-ups in the room can benefit from this kind of media fast as well.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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