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Family Psychotherapist Explains How Parents Can Help to Keep Young People Safe on Social Media

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Starring Kate Winslet and real-life daughter Mia Threapleton, Channel 4’s I Am Ruth explores the endemic mental health crisis affecting young people and highlights how the pressure of the online world can have toxic consequences for teens and their self-image.

One of the most pressing questions the series raises for parents is – how do I keep my child safe as they grow up navigating social media?

Family psychotherapist, Fiona Yassin, said: “Parents and carers may feel under huge strain trying to protect their child’s mental health. Sometimes, parents feel that nothing they can say or do is right. It’s important to recognise you have not failed as a parent if your young person is struggling with the all-consuming world of social media.”

Yassin, founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic, explains the steps parents and carers can take to help their young people stay safe and well online.

When a parent thinks their young person is overusing or encountering problems on social media, it can be tempting to act impulsively by turning the Wi-Fi off, blocking certain servers or taking the phone or device away. 

Parents should start by talking to children about social media without filling them with the idea that it’s an ultra-scary world. It’s important to take a considered approach.

Ask your young person about their online persona

Most parents have young people exposed to online media from a very early age. In that, they will develop an online profile. Just as adults have LinkedIn and Facebook profiles, young people will have certain profiles they use for certain things and may show different sides of themselves on different platforms. Ask your young person how they think their online persona differs from their persona in real-life.

Educate your young person

If unrealistic beauty standards particularly impact your young person, for example, help them to understand that the images they see on social media are often manipulated and, or edited. Make them aware that many celebrities have big teams behind their look, including nutritionists, personal trainers, and make-up artists, and understand it is simply not realistic to try to achieve that ideal as a normal human being. As a parent who may not have grown up in an online world, you may need to educate yourself on this first. 

Be inquisitive about what your young person is doing online

Rather than accusing your young person or clamping down on their activity, begin a healthy dialogue with them by asking a range of questions: What social media platforms are they using? What upsets them on social media? What have they posted and then felt ashamed about posting? 

Distract away from social media

Help to limit the time your young person spends online by distracting them with other activities. Being online and doing an activity like hiking, crafting or playing a sport is difficult. Limiting exposure to social media does not prevent them from having friends or contact with other people; it protects their mental health and well-being.

Get professional help

If you believe your young person is suffering from a mental health disorder–including eating disorders or a body dysmorphia disorder – is becoming consumed by the pressures of social media, or is suicidal, seek professional help immediately. Some mental health cases and disorders will require the assistance of a psychiatrist and mental health team.  

Yassin said: “There is a direct correlation between young people spending time on social media and higher rates of depression and anxiety.”

“For teenagers and young adults, the prevalence of social media is ingrained into the fabric of their everyday lives. Research has shown that nearly six in 10 teenagers are daily TikTok users, and 16% say they use it “almost constantly. They may not remember a time without social media and will, therefore, not be aware of the effect that it could be having on their mental health.”

New data published by NHS Digital has revealed the impact of the pandemic on the younger generation. One in four older teenagers in England is struggling with mental health problems compared to one in six in 2021, and one in eight of all 11 to 16-year-old social media users reported they had been bullied online. This rose to nearly one in three among those with a probable mental issue. 

In November, measures which would have forced big technology platforms to take down legal but harmful material were axed from the Online Safety Bill. 

Yassin said: “Social media can be very triggering and dangerous, and more work must be done to remove things that will not be useful in promoting a culture of safety and fairness for all. 30% of people subjected to online bullying, statements, or misuse are unaware of who is doing it.”

“There’s no doubt that the veiled use of social media encourages a minority to share toxic and damaging content. The anonymity aspect of social media is particularly dangerous. When the person posting cannot see the reaction of others, it can lead to an unpleasant, shared psychopathology.”

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