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Lawsuits against social media companies spotlights youth mental health

The Wenatchee World - 11/9/2023

Nov. 9—WENATCHEE — Last month, Washington joined dozens of other states in a lawsuit against Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, alleging it concealed the ways its social media platforms "manipulate and exploit" children and teens to get them hooked to the apps.

The lawsuit accuses Meta of fueling a nationwide youth mental health crisis by engineering its products to be addictive for children.

In a separate lawsuit, the Wenatchee School District joined other school districts nationwide, including Quincy this year, to sue Meta and other social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube for "causing harm to students."

Dr. Timothy Day is the behavioral health clinical supervisor at Confluence Health. He has more than 15 years of experience in mental health focused on children, adolescents and families.

He said in an email there are concerns linked to social media use in children and adolescents that require careful consideration by parents.

Day said many youths may spend up to 6 — 8 hours on social media, which can lead to less time and potential missed opportunities to engage in other healthy activities and can add to feelings of additional pressure.

"For many, the pressures of social media, such as feeling the need to respond to other's messages, check alerts, and receiving notifications, might feel overwhelming and distracting. This is a source of stress for many and may link to depressive symptoms," Day said.

For adolescents who go through identity development, social media can make it easy for them to compare themselves to others, resulting in a form of self-dissatisfaction.

"As part of that (identity development), it is natural to look to others and compare ourselves," Day said." Adolescents (and adults) in particular draw comparisons between themselves and what is on social media. People tend to try to show their 'best selves' online. When we see the 'ideal' life someone else is leading, whether that be posts of their vacations, social events, or discussions on appearance, we naturally begin to suspect we may be inadequate. People typically do not post about their day-to-day struggles, the hurdles they faced, or the effort it took to develop those positive experiences. As a result, we see an unrealistic portrayal of people's happiness and well-being online and unrealistically set expectations for us to have the same."

With increased social media use comes risks of sleep disturbances.

"Disrupted sleep patterns are a particular concern in youth as they are undergoing significant brain development and trying to balance multiple obligations through their school, family, and social life. We know that sleep deprivation connects to a variety of mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety, and others," Day said.

Another concern parents may have with youth social media use is exposure to online discrimination, exploitation, and cyberbullying.

"The internet offers ample opportunities for anonymity which in turn leads to increasing polarizing comments and the possibility of being bullied," Day said. "Cyberbullying is harmful and has that added effect of creating a digital footprint. It is the type of bullying that keeps returning even if one's situation changes. Furthermore, social media for many teens lacks the scrutiny of adults that is present in a school or home environment. Parents may not be aware of what their children are doing online or the messages they are receiving. This might include youth accessing inappropriate or sexually explicit material online, viewing violent and abusive behavior, and others."

Day said one's style and type of use of social media may connect to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and dissatisfaction with one's life and appearance.

"Many risk factors of mental health concerns, such as bullying, continue to exist online," Day said. "Many youth are offered open access to social media and other online materials with limited or no supervision. The reduced transparency in an online setting may only increase the exposure and longevity of these risk factors."

But not all effects from social media are negative and harmful, said Day.

"There are several positives for adolescents that actually promote mental health well-being," Day said. "For example, social media creates an opportunity to access greater and increasingly diverse social support. Close and supportive friends are essential in adolescence to help manage stress and all the adjustments that occur with becoming a teen. This is especially true of youth from minority backgrounds who may struggle to directly connect with others in their community."

Day said parents should not feel rushed to introduce their child to social media. Every child is different, and a youth's readiness for social media access depends on their maturity, the parent's trust, and the type of social media used.

"Monitoring includes knowing what messages the child might be receiving, what apps are in use, that privacy settings are in place, and what alerts the youth is receiving," Day said. "Adolescents should also be reminded regularly and directly that what they post or share online may be used by others and can be stored for all sorts of purposes."

For children struggling with mental health issues, Day said there are a variety of treatment options to assist youth struggling with mental health concerns.

"Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a well-researched therapy approach for use with children, adolescents, and adults and focuses on collaboratively setting goals with a client," Day said.

If a parent has concerns about self-harm or a youth's ability to stay safe, Day encourages them to the 9-8-8 suicide crisis line or the NCW crisis line at 800-273-8255.

Stigmas about mental health can be a hurdle to seeking treatment, and recognizing mental health as a real issue will help others, Day said.

"In many situations, people may not recognize that someone is struggling with a mental health concern, Day said. "Many people believe that, because it is invisible, mental health is minor or something that can or should be worked through individually. They might make comments like, 'Get over it' or 'It's all in your head.' This stigma creates feelings of shame for someone who may be struggling, perhaps even increasing their reluctance to seek scientifically researched help and guidance."

Teenagers, friends, and families should reflect on their own assumptions and comments on mental illness.

"As mental health is not always apparent, an innocuous comment about mental health may have a bigger impact than intended," Day said. "We want our children to be open and feel that they have a safe person to discuss their concerns with. We should also highlight positive examples of people who have struggled with mental illness and successfully managed those symptoms. For example, many celebrities recently acknowledged their resilience following a struggle with a mental health concern. Seeing these examples of success empowers others to seek assistance. Additionally, as a community, we need to make sure routine opportunities for screening are in place, whether that be in a medical clinic, school, or other locale. The availability of mental health screening, much like the availability, of blood pressure screening, helps identify those that are struggling and normalizes the ability to seek help."


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