Does Your Child Have an Unhealthy Relationship to Social Media? Here’s How to Tell.

Every parent who has watched their child robotically scroll through social media feeds bathed in blue light has wondered about the effects it may be having on their mental health. And in the past two weeks, both the United States surgeon general and the American Psychological Association have issued warnings about the risks of social media to young people. So what are parents supposed to do?

“Families need to take this seriously,” said Dr. Gary Small, the chair of psychiatry at the Hackensack University Medical Center. But he added that social media use in teens was not inherently good or bad; rather, parents need to take a close look at how it is affecting their children, and whether it is enhancing their lives or hampering their ability to “function in life and to learn.”

The New York Times asked Dr. Small and other experts in adolescent development for a few practical questions that parents should consider when evaluating their children’s social media use.

Does my child participate in a “diverse and meaningful” range of activities every day?

This question can be a helpful jumping-off point, said Dr. Jenny Radesky, the co-medical director at the Center of Excellence on Social Media and Youth Mental Health at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Does your child love or derive a sense of pleasure from other daily activities, including some not in the virtual world?

“Are they playing baseball? Are they going to ballet?” echoed Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, the president of the Child Mind Institute. If children are doing something besides going to school and spending time on screens, they may well have a balanced and healthy relationship with social media, even if they are on it every day, he said.

Also, consider whether social media is your child’s primary emotional outlet, Dr. Radesky said: “If it’s the main thing helping kids feel better if they’ve had a stressful day or need to escape.” If so, that could be a warning sign that you need to help them find other strategies to cope, whether it’s taking a walk, playing with a pet, reading a book or something else.

How many hours a day is my child using social media?

There isn’t a clear, evidence-based threshold for how much social media use is too much for preteens and teens, and experts’ opinions differ. But time matters, said Anne Marie Albano, the co-clinical director of the Center for Youth Mental Health at NewYork-Presbyterian, and parents should have a clear sense of how much their children are online every day.

Dr. Koplewicz says he tends to use a benchmark of no more than four hours of total screen time per day for adolescents, while Dr. Albano often recommends that families establish a ratio of three to five hours of face-to-face socializing or in-person activities for every one hour a teen spends on social media.

Adults should also take a look at their own screen habits, Dr. Small said. Parents may be multitasking, or spending a lot of time on their devices around their children. “But they can model for their kids how to have offline time, and how important that is,” he said.

Does my child have a very hard time stopping?

Children of all ages tend to be unhappy when their screen time is up, Dr. Albano said, and some level of grumpiness or whining is to be expected.

“But if you are seeing tears, if you are seeing anger, if they are yelling at you — and if this is persistent,” that can be a potential red flag, she said.

Stopping is a skill parents can teach, Dr. Radesky said. She has her own children set a kitchen timer to indicate when their screen time is up. If they stop without her having to nag them, they are given the same amount of screen time the next day. If not, they are given less.

Is it affecting their ability to get enough sleep, complete their homework or generally function day to day?

All of the experts interviewed emphasized the importance of sleep for preteens and teens, and said parents should consider whether social media was causing them to stay up too late. Establishing a few family rules, like keeping all devices outside of the bedroom overnight, can help.

Parents should also look out for whether social media use is getting in the way of schoolwork or contributing to changes in mood or appetite, which can signal distress. (It can be useful to check for some of the signs of teenage depression.)

Dr. Jessi Gold, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, suggested that parents start an open and nonjudgmental conversation with adolescents about social media’s impacts and how “it can affect their sleep, and it can affect their mood, and it can affect their concentration and self-esteem.”

“Social media exists, and it’s not going away,” Dr. Gold said. “So the answer can’t be to approach your teen saying, ‘They said it’s bad for your mental health, so I’m taking away all of your screens.’”

Catherine Pearson is a reporter for the Well section of The Times, covering families and relationships.

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