Thorunn Egilsdottir
Corporate Communication Manager
31st October 2023

Problematic social media use and how to prevent it

Our world has truly become digital. In the media you regularly come across terms like FOMO (fear of missing out), and nomophobia (irrational fear of being without your mobile phone) as well as worries about the impact of social media on young people. But do parents understand how their children use social media, and what problematic social media use is? Dr. Claire van Duin and Dr. Carolina Catunda, researchers at the University of Luxembourg, talk to us about problematic social media use and provide five useful tips for parents that worry about their children’s social media use.

1. Carolina and Claire, you are part of the HBSC Luxembourg Study that collects data on health and health behaviours of adolescents aged 11 to 18 years old.

How is Luxembourg's youth's social media use compared to the rest of the world?

Indeed, Luxembourg is one of the countries participating in the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children Study.

In 2018, 8,687 adolescents in schools aged 11 to 18 years old participated in the Luxembourg Study compared to 227,441 internationally.  

When asked how often they had online contact with their friends and others, 27% of the adolescents interviewed in Luxembourg reported they were in contact with their friends almost all day long, considered to be an intensive electronic media communication. In an international comparison, that puts Luxembourg under the average of the European countries participating in the survey.

However, that an adolescent has intensive online communication does not mean that they have a pattern of problematic social media use. Intensive online communication is based on frequency of online communication, whereas problematic social media use (as measured by the HBSC study) looks at characteristics and consequences of social media use.  In Luxembourg, about 6% of the interviewed adolescents could be considered as having problematic use of social media. In an international comparison with other countries participating in the HBSC study, Luxembourg is on the average.

More recently, in 2022, the HBSC Luxembourg study asked adolescents the same questions about problematic social media use and electronic media communication. In Luxembourg, the prevalence of adolescents having intensive electronic media communication and problematic social media use have increased in comparison to 2018. However, the study concludes that there are significant gender differences. Frequent electronic media contact and problematic social media use are higher among girls than boys. International comparisons are not yet available. 

2. When do we speak of an addiction and what are the associated mental health symptoms?

An addiction to social media, also known as problematic social media use or social media disorder, is currently not recognised as an official disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Problematic social media use typically refers to a compulsive pattern that is no longer controlled by the individual and implies negative consequences on his social relationships.

However, there are other problematic behaviours related to social media, such as engaging in antisocial behaviour online.  

The HSBC study uses criteria for internet gaming disorder to assess problematic social media use. These criteria include spending excessive time on social media and using it to escape negative emotions. Only when most of these criteria are met does it indicate a problematic pattern of social media use. In 2018, approximately 6% of Luxembourg adolescents were considered to have problematic social media use.

Research findings regarding the relationship between social media use and well-being are contradictory. Some studies have found a link between social media use and anxiety and depression among adolescents, while others have not found a relationship.

The studies that did find a negative relationship reported relatively small effects. This suggests that social media use does not have devastating effects on the well-being of young people.

Moreover, social media use and well-being interact with each other, as social media can influence well-being and well-being can impact social media use. It is also important to note that what matters for well-being is not simply the amount of time spent on social media, but how it is used and engaged with by young people.

3. In case of problems, where can parents and children seek help?

A helpful resource in Luxembourg to learn more about internet safety and social media use for people of all ages is the BEE Secure website. This is an initiative from the Luxembourg government which provides helpful information and resources to promote safe and positive use of digital technologies including social media. The BEE Secure website provides information on a variety of different topics, ranging from excessive use to cyber-bullying. There is even information available specifically for children to allow them to learn using the internet with games and stories.

Parents can also have conversations with their children about social media use and the associated risks. Open, non-judgemental conversations with adolescents about social media use are a good opportunity to talk about internet safety. What is important to remember is that adolescents grew up with social media as a reality and might have more knowledge about complexities related to social media use than their parents. Additionally, in many cases adolescents themselves are aware of potential negative influences of social media use, especially where vulnerable adolescents are concerned.

4. Does time spend on social media matter? What time limits should parents impose on their children?

Intensity of electronic media communication, which is based on time spent communicating with others online, is associated with problematic social media use. In that sense time spent on social media matters, but problematic social media use is by no means the result of one factor such as frequency of time spent online.

It is important that social media use does not replace other activities that are beneficial to the health and well-being of young people, such as engaging in physical activity. Research on social media use of young people indicates that it is not necessarily a problem whether social media is used, or how much time is spent on social media, but rather that it is important how social media is used.

For example, is social media used with motive for social connection, for entertainment, for educational purposes or for boredom? Additionally, what kind of content are young people actively seeking out, or being exposed to, while using social media? These different factors that are connected to how social media is used appear to be more important for negative and positive effects of social media on young people than the time spent on social media. 

With regards to time limits on social media use, the WHO published guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and sleep for children under 5 years of age in 2019. In these guidelines it is recommended that infants less than one year old should not engage in sedentary screen time, and for children from one to four years old should not exceed one hour per day.

Time limits on sedentary screen time for older children and adolescents have been proposed by different organisations around the world, although these guidelines are regularly criticised for not being based on sufficient evidence. Generally, it is important that social media use (and sedentary screen time in general) does not replace activities such as physical activity or socialising with friends, nor has a negative impact on schoolwork or sleep patterns.

5 useful tips

for parents that worry about the social media use of their children:

  1. Focus on how social media is used, not how much time is spent on social media.
  2. Have open non-judgemental conversations with your children about their social media use, to guide them in a safe social media use.
  3. Encourage non-sedentary activities that are beneficial for well-being and health, such as sports and playing outside.
  4. Lead by example: whether encouraging physical activity or limiting phone use during family time such as dinner..
  5. Do not focus on the negative side of social media, be aware of potential positive effects.

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