Kids today are more connected than ever before. About 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and nearly half say they’re constantly online.

According to a new Children’s Mental Health Report from the nonprofit Child Mind Institute, up to 10% of kids and teens engage in “problematic internet use (PIU)”  — online use excessive enough to interfere with their daily lives. Problematic internet use is linked with mental health conditions like depression and ADHD in kids.

Child Mind Institute president and medical director, Harold Koplewicz, MD, explains the impact of round-the-clock social media and internet use on kids’ emotional well-being, and what parents can do to create a healthier balance in their children’s lives.

WebMD: How has kids’ online use changed over the years?

Koplewicz: In 2012, nearly 50% of teens said their favorite way to communicate with friends was in person. In person usually meant either face to face or over the telephone. In 2018, it dropped to 32%. Half of teenagers say they are addicted to a mobile device, and 72% feel the need to immediately respond to texts and social messages.

WebMD: In what ways can online time be positive for kids?

Koplewicz: In some ways, online communication is protective. Eighty-one percent of teens say social media makes them feel more connected to their friends. For kids who feel socially isolated, particularly LGBTQ kids who can’t find people in their community who are similar to them, very often the kinds of networks they find online can make them feel less isolated.

WebMD: What’s the connection between teens’ internet use and mental health?

There have been several recent studies where young users who spent more time on Instagram, Facebook, and other online platforms had higher rates of reported depression and anxiety symptoms. It’s the kids who have mental health disorders like depression and ADHD who are most at risk for problematic internet use. Problematic use of the internet has the same potential negative effects as drug abuse on a kid who is already vulnerable.

Koplewicz: Is internet use addictive?

We know that there is a neurochemical response to using the internet, which makes it so enjoyable. All of us feel a surge of dopamine when we get an email or a text. If you’re already vulnerable, particularly because of depression or ADHD, problematic internet use can be addictive. You can actually feel bad when you can’t do it. You’ll feel that withdrawal.

WebMD: When does online use cross the line and become a problem?

Online habits become problematic when a child is compulsive about their internet use. When they’re motivated by the desire for mood alteration, and when they actually feel better when they’re online. When we see a child or a teen who is not interacting with the rest of the world, who is not participating in extracurricular activities, who is socially isolated and finding their life online only, that’s when we start to worry about these types of habits having an effect on mental health.

Koplewicz: What signs should alert parents that their child might have a problem with internet use?

Look at their sleep patterns. Are they sleeping less? Are they isolating more? Are you finding that you can’t get them to do activities that they did before? Take a look at how long your kids spend online. If it’s more than three hours a day, you have to think about what they’re giving up by using the phone or the internet so much.

WebMD: What can parents do to curb their children’s screen usage?

If your child doesn’t have a mental health disorder, limit their online time to three hours a day. Kids with a mental health disorder should have even less time online. Take your kids’ phones and other devices away at nighttime, or shut down the Wi-Fi in your house.

WebMD And how can parents ensure that the time their kids do spend online is more positive?

Koplewicz: Monitor your kids and see what they’re doing online. Tell them you’re going to look at their browsing history. Move their computer down to the kitchen or family room. And set family rules for the internet.

Focus on balance. Make sure your children are also engaging in social interactions offline. Turn off their cell phone notifications. These tempt kids to interrupt what they’re doing to engage with their phones. Be especially watchful in teens who are at high risk for depression. Model restraint and balance in your own media use. Spend time online together with your kids, and share your values with them.

To read the full Children’s Mental Health Report, and find resources and strategies for managing your kids’ social media use, visit: childmind.org/report.

WebMD Blog

© 2019 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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