The reality of life is that 9 in 10 UK teenagers are on social media (Ofcom). Social media can have many benefits for young people: they can instantly connect with others, share their lives and interests, be creative and access a wide range of information and support.
But social media can also negatively affect young people’s self-esteem and wellbeing by disrupting their sleep and exposing them to misinformation, peer pressure and unrealistic views of other people’s lives.
Behind the picture-perfect lives of many public figures, models, influencers - and even our friends - on social media can lie a reality of mental ill-health and body image issues.
This is something that Leanne Maskell understands from both personal and professional experience.
Having started her modeling career as a young teen, Leanne projected the perfect life on social media.
However, behind her seemingly glamorous lifestyle was a young person battling serious mental health challenges, including body dysmorphic disorder, ADHD and suicidal thoughts.
Now a bestselling author, ADHD coach and legal activist, Leanne wants to equip children and young people - and their parents - with the knowledge and tools they need to protect their mental wellbeing around using social media.
Here Leanne shares her top tips for parents to help their children navigate the world of social media, body image and mental health, taken from her latest book, The Reality Manifesto.
Leanne has also generously shared the final chapter from her book as a free download to help more children, young people and parents take steps to improve their mental wellbeing in a digital world.
Leanne's top tips
I can only imagine how terrible it must feel as a parent to watch your child suffer in a virtual world, as though there’s an invisible wall that stands between you both.
When I became a coach, I was inundated by worried parents of children experiencing the same severe mental health challenges I’d experienced growing up as a fashion model since the age of 13.
I wrote The Reality Manifesto to provide support and insight into the world of social media, mental health and body image.
Here are my top tips for parents to help them support their children’s mental health and wellbeing around using social media (written with the strong disclaimer of not being a parent myself but having worked very closely with teenagers over the last year):
Your child and social media
- Talk to your child about their experiences on social media. Ask questions that start with ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘where’, and ‘when’, making clear that you’re trying to understand how they feel, how you can support them and that they won’t be in any trouble. Engaging in active listening is important - where you listen fully to your child without judgement, expectation or interruption, understand what they’re saying, respond to and reflect on what’s being said and remember the information for later.
- Reassure your child that they can always talk to you about anything they’ve seen on the internet. Remind them that algorithms deliberately show content that will keep them scrolling for longer, which they don’t have control over.
- Have a conversation with your children about their views on social media. For example, ask them what they think about the fact that the Chinese version of TikTok has a 40-minute limit for children using it each day, and why that might be. You could ask them what they think about ideas such as labeling on filtered images and engage them in positive discussion about what they think could improve the world of social media. This can help you to see what they’re finding the most difficult.
- When your child starts using a new app, ask them to explain it to you. Take some time to research them yourself, as some can be more harmful than they appear.
- Negotiate a family-wide agreement around putting devices away at night. Set a time each evening to ‘check in’ everybody’s phones (and other screens, such as iPads and laptops) into one communal area, with a set time to pick them up in the morning. Lots of us use our phones as alarms in the morning, so embrace using an alarm clock instead.
- Reduce your family’s reliance on phones. You could have a ‘phone box’ in a set place, like at the front door, which everyone puts their phones into at specific times. You could also try using apps that allow you to control when you do - or don’t - receive notifications from certain apps and websites to allow you to focus more on other things, such as homework and family time.
- Try a screen detox. This could be having a screen-free day once a week or making sure all phones, tablets, laptops and TVs are turned off at mealtimes. Children often follow by example, so be mindful about your own screen use.
Talking about mental health
- Talk openly about mental health at home. Remind your child that it’s ok to feel sad, anxious and overwhelmed at times and that, while these emotions are tough to experience, they won’t feel that way forever. As difficult as it might be, having open conversations with your child about things like depression, self-harm or suicidal thoughts allows them to feel less alone by speaking about how they are feeling without judgement.
- If your child is feeling anxious, listen to their concerns and help them work out their next steps. If your child feels anxious about something specific, such as seeing friends, ask them what their worst-case scenario is and what they think would happen as a result of it. Then ask them what their best-case scenario is and work with them to problem solve the situation to find a middle ground they’re comfortable with, such as reassuring them you can pick them up if they feel uncomfortable at any time.
- If your child makes a negative comment about themselves, try to unbox it. Ask them what the reasons are behind their negative comment and what it means, especially words like “stupid”. Try to get very specific with them: what is it that they’d like to change and how do they think their life would be different as a result?
- Let your child know where they can turn for help. Ensure your child has a list of resources, including Shout, that they can reach out to for support or in an emergency.
- Help your child identify a confidante. Try to ensure your child has at least one person they feel free to have a conversation with, without any fear or judgement, such as a friend, family member, mentor, therapist or coach. Support them to identify who this is for them.
- Ask your child about hobbies they’d like to try in real life, away from their screens. This could be joining a sports team or acting. You could also look at trying a new hobby together, such as cooking new recipes or going to yoga classes. Support your child to pursue this.
- Share your own mental health journey. Talk to your child about your own challenges with mental health, body image, screen use - or whatever else it is that they might be experiencing. Remind them that you can handle anything they might want to talk to you about and you are always there to support them - you’re the parent and they don’t need to worry about you.