Two teens on their phones.
Growing up with social media certainly has its benefits. When used in moderation, social media can help children and teens make friends, maintain relationships, and even achieve better education outcomes.

Growing up with social media certainly has its benefits. When used in moderation, social media can help children and teens make friends, maintain relationships, and even achieve better education outcomes. But it is not without risk. In fact, social media has been linked with depression, anxiety, loneliness, bullying, and a whole host of other problems teenagers face today. As parents, it is our job to protect them from these side effects. And one of our main tasks should be to prevent social media addiction in teens. So here’s what I’ve learned from raising four teenagers in the digital age.

Not preventing social media addiction in teens can have long-term consequences

Most of us, young and old, use social media every day. But as adults, we have more experience and better coping mechanisms to deal with the negative sides of social media, such as loneliness, isolation, and social comparison. Teenagers are far more vulnerable. Not only are they more likely to suffer self-esteem and anxiety issues due to social media use, but they are also more likely to become addicted.

Group of teens on their phones.
Social media addiction can have serious and long-lasting consequences.

An addiction to social media is a behavioral one – it affects how people act, especially around others. Teenagers who suffer from this type of addiction may become seriously distressed when they cannot use social media, will have trouble forming connections face-to-face, and might even start slipping in school. These patterns of behavior can have long-lasting consequences. The worst of them are those we cannot see: a potentially lifelong struggle to handle social situations outside of the virtual world. It is for this reason that preventing social media addiction in children, teenagers, and young adults is so important.

There are many different ways to prevent social media addiction in teens

It is certainly possible for teenagers to use social media without getting addicted. They just need to learn how to balance their online life and the real world. As their parents, guardians, and teachers, it is our job to show them the way. Depending on your style of parenting, you may approach this in different ways. Here are some of the approaches I’ve personally noticed.

A rule-based approach

This is not an approach I myself have taken or would advocate for. But I’ve seen many of my friends who also have children attempt to prevent addiction to social media and technology in general by implementing rules about the use of phones and computers. This can mean anything from setting up parental controls to limiting screen time to only using a shared family computer.

A moody teen with headphones on.
Having too many rules can backfire and alienate your teenager.

Many parents swear by this approach, and in the short term, I suppose it makes sense. But it is my experience that teenagers are not big fans of rules. Given half a chance, they’ll find ways to bend, break, or avoid them. More likely than not, they will spend more time on social media than you want them to, and they’ll be doing things you forbade. And as an added bonus, they’ll grow to resent you for trying to control them. Because of this, I only implement strict rules very occasionally when I have no other choice.

A distraction-based approach

Teenagers today require a lot of stimulation. When this is lacking in other parts of their lives, they turn to social media. So a good way to keep them from dedicating too much of their lives to social media is to provide them with other opportunities to have fun. There are many hobbies teenagers can pick up that don’t require the use of technology at all; you just need to encourage them and provide the tools. One of my girls is very much into painting, so we turned a part of the attic into a studio for her. Two of our boys are big fans of sports, so we pay for basketball and soccer training. It all depends on your child’s interest.

Group of teens on top of a mountain.
Teach your kids to enjoy things other than social media.

I would, however, recommend steering all children toward exercise of some kind. An overly sedentary lifestyle in young people has been linked to bad posture, obesity, muscle and bone deterioration, and more. You can avoid all this by encouraging your teens to take up a sport of some kind, whether that’s track, football, cheerleading, or just hiking. In addition to all the physical benefits, exercising can be very beneficial for mental health. So it is also possible for physical activity to improve the mood of your kids. Between the hormones released during exercise, the joy of winning a match, and the camaraderie of being on a team, your teens will lead much happier and healthier lives. And they simply won’t have the time to become addicted to social media!

An understanding-based approach

I am a firm believer in talking things out with kids. Trust me; they’re much smarter than you probably give them credit. So instead of enforcing rules that they don’t understand, try to understand them and share your own thoughts in turn. Ask your teenagers why social media matters to them. If they are experiencing some negative consequences of it (such as anxiety or low self-esteem), work with them on figuring out the root causes of these problems. Explain to them why you want them to have a life offline. It’s important for both them and you to know the good, the bad, and the ugly of social media. This will teach your children to think about social media critically – a skill that can help them avoid negative consequences later in life as well.

A mixed method

Teenagers are complicated; a single rule, distraction, or conversation is usually not enough to keep them off social media. So in my experience, the best thing you can do is combine all the different methods. You can talk to your children about social media and teach them to enjoy all the things we did before social media too. And when it comes down to it, you may even need to enforce some strict rules. The most important thing to remember is that all teenagers are different and require a unique approach. So adjust to your kids and their needs.

Learn to recognize the signs that you have failed to prevent social media addiction in teens

It is entirely possible to fail despite your best efforts to prevent social media addiction in teens. After all, your kids are not always in your sight, and you can’t control what they do all the time. So you should also learn to recognize the signs of social media addiction; the sooner you spot them, the better chances you’ll have of helping your teen. Keep an eye out for: an excessive amount of time spent online, distress at not having a phone or computer nearby, difficulty focusing, exhaustion and insomnia, increased anxiety, or signs of depression. If you spot these symptoms, consider seeking treatment for your teenager. Social media addiction can be successfully treated with therapy. So don’t panic – you can still help your kids.

Julie Olsen is a stay-at-home mom of six children aged 8 to 16. In 2017, she started a blog about parenting where she shares her daily struggles, the lessons she's learned, and the joys of having a large family. Her hope for the future is that her children will grow up to be good people who get to live happy lives, whatever that means for them.