5 Tween-aged kids sitting on a window sill at school looking at their phones.

Tweens, Social Media, and Mental Health

Tweens, social media, and mental health – the topic is getting a lot of attention in the news today. A quick online search brings up questions of impact, even going so far as to ask whether the combination of tweens and social media is a threat to mental health. 

Let’s take a closer look at how tweens are using social media, how it affects them, and what to do if your tween is spending too much time online.

Should Tweens Use Social Media? 

A 2021 Pew Research study revealed a 17% increase in the use of screen media among tweens and teens. Media use grew faster during two years of the COVID-19 pandemic than it had grown in the previous four years. At the time of the study, 38% of tweens reported using social media,18% saying they use it every day. 

How many hours is appropriate for a 12 y/o?

So, if screentime is increasing, how many hours do tweens and social media spend together? The Pew Research report found that teens spent far more time on social media than tweens, which could partly have to do with age requirements on the platforms. 

Although all three platforms have 13 as the minimum age requirement, Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook came out on top as the preferred social media platforms for tweens. Tiktok has soared in popularity in recent years, but limited features for kids in the US have made it less appealing to a younger demographic.

In 2021, a C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital poll reported nearly half of parents surveyed said their 10-12 year old children had used social media in the previous six months. 

But the Pew Research report that same year had concluded that 8 – 12 year olds were spending minutes, not hours, on social media platforms. They were instead using their daily screen time for television (65%), online videos (64%), and mobile games (43%). And they were averaging nearly six hours each day on screen-based entertainment.

How Does Social Media Affect Kids Under 13?

“Between the ages of 10 and 12, changes in the brain make social rewards—compliments on a new hairstyle, laughter from a classmate—start to feel a lot more satisfying. Specifically, receptors for the ‘happy hormones’ oxytocin and dopamine multiply in a part of the brain called the ventral striatum, making preteens extra sensitive to attention and admiration from others.”
The American Psychological Association 

Likes, comments, and shares on social media can fill that attention gap, especially for tweens who aren’t getting age-appropriate in-person encouragement and admiration from parents, role models, and others they look up to. 

The issue of tweens, social media and mental health has the potential to grow and be part of most families. The pressure to allow your tween to be an early-adopter is particularly prominent if they have  friends who are allowed access, or if there are older teens in the home. Their exposure will be greater and the desire to join in the activity all the more. Close attention is required by parents, in order to minimize or head off future issues as they turn into teens –  especially mental health issues.

You’re probably familiar with some of the negative impacts that can result from young users getting the admiration they crave on social media platforms:

  • Developing friends only online rather than cultivating in-person relationships
  • Visiting sites that are inappropriate for children and not parent approved
  • Experiencing cyberbullying
  • Becoming increasingly anxious or depressed
  • Developing low self-esteem
  • Unknowingly engaging with predators 
  • Losing sleep by staying online throughout the night

The good news is a 2022 study found that social media doesn’t have to affect kids negatively. In fact, it can be a positive tool for healthy interactions. What makes the biggest difference in whether the effects are positive or negative is family involvement. 

Researchers in the study used the term “family-engaged adolescents” to describe the young people who were doing well with technology and not struggling with any negative impacts. This means their families had established rules for technology use, the parents and kids were communicating with one another about their participation in social media and other technology, and the parents modeled healthy boundaries in their own online engagement.

How do I know if Social Media is Affecting my Tween’s Mental Health?

What if your tween is struggling? You may not be able to tie your preteen’s mental health directly to the use of social media, but you can pay attention to the warning signs of a mental health crisis. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics lists symptoms to look for:

  • Frequent changes in mood
  • Anger
  • Loss of interest in things they typically enjoy
  • Changes in sleep patterns — too little or too much sleep 
  • Weight changes — losing or gaining pounds
  • Withdrawal from people they are close to and usually enjoy spending time with
  • Refusal to talk about what’s going on 
  • Signs they’re using drugs, alcohol, or other substances

If you notice that your tween is consistently exhibiting several of the behaviors on this list, talk to them about their mental health and dig deeper into their social media use. See what platforms they’re using, who they’re interacting with, and what they’re saying online. 

What To Do If Your Preteen Is Getting Too Much Screen Time

If your review tells you that your preteen is spending too much time online and not enough time in person with friends and family, you may want to make a plan for balancing their online and offline lives. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics has created a tool for families to monitor their media use and hold each other accountable. The Family Media Plan is for any family that wants to set media priorities the whole family can agree on.

In addition to creating the media plan, the AAP recommends:

  • Co-viewing online media with kids and discussing the values portrayed
  • Creating a media curfew and keeping devices out of kids’ bedrooms
  • Limiting screen time to one or two hours each day
  • Keeping computers shared spaces in the home so kids don’t have private access to them
  • Familiarizing yourselves with social media platforms and friending your kids so you can see their activity
  • Talking with your kids about appropriate use of social media

Still wondering, “Should I let my 12 y/o get social media?” consider the above information and make the best choice for your family. If you choose to allow your tweens to engage on social media, talk with them about where and how they’re interacting and who they’re interacting with. 

Concerned about your tweens and social media platforms they’re using? Reach out to the professionals at Best Day. We’re here to help!