There has been much recent research about the potentially damaging effects of excessive social media use on mental health, especially when it comes to teens and young adults.
Young people, who spend a lot of time on Instagram, TikTok, Snap Chat and other platforms, often struggle with feelings of dissatisfaction, isolation, and inadequacy, according to the literature. A 2019 study of more than 12,000 13- to 16-year-olds in England found that using social media more than three times a day predicted poor mental health and well-being. Numerous other studies in the U.S. and elsewhere have come to similar conclusions, linking anxiety and depression to hours spent on social media.
But questions remain: What prompts some young people to spend so much time on social media? And why are some adolescents and teens harmed, while others aren’t?
An emerging body of research suggests that attachment style may play a role. In other words, whether an individual is securely or insecurely attached, not only influences how they approach interpersonal relationships, but also how they cope with their relationships online.
What does this mean?
Our style of attachment is established in early childhood and stays with us into adulthood. Children who experience loving nurturing care from infancy, typically grow into securely attached adults who can sustain healthy relationships. Meanwhile, those who are traumatized, abused or neglected in early childhood cope with their experiences by developing other patterns of attachment that continue to impact their lives even when circumstances change.
Insecurely attached individuals have three general attachment styles. They include:
- Avoidant – Individuals with this attachment style are generally avoidant and uncomfortable with closeness. They primarily value their independence and freedom.
- Anxious – These individuals tend to be hyper-focused and insecure in their relationships. They are anxious and needy, and crave closeness and intimacy, but have a fear of abandonment and rejection.
- Disorganized – These individuals struggle with unresolved trauma. They are both avoidant and anxious; can’t tolerate intimacy, yet tend to be insecure and needy in relationships.
When it comes to social media, insecure attachment “is significantly associated with more problematic social media use,” according to the research. And it is those with an anxious attachment style who are most at risk.
In a 2018 study published in Psychiatric Research of more than 1,000 young people (17-25 years old), anxiously attached individuals exhibited “higher levels of problematic social media use in an attempt to seek comfort and belongingness online.”
The findings are explained in a Psychology Today article: “Social media may allow these individuals to maintain connections with many people, to communicate almost constantly with the object of their affections, and to reduce fears of missing out on a connection,” wrote Phil Reed, D.Phil. “Perhaps the distance of the digital relationship also reduces some of the perceived risks of real social interactions. Thus, the anxiously attached are at most risk from digital devices—and those are the people you will see hyper-vigilantly checking their phones, and frantically texting, messaging, and using social media.”
This becomes problematic when online relationships become a substitute for real relationships and connections, and the often-negative messaging on social media becomes the most powerful messaging for a young person.
Boundaries and Limits
What can parents and caregivers of children with compromised attachment do? Set boundaries and limits and be a good role model.
Before encouraging their kids to limit their time on devices and social media, parents should think about their own tech habits. Parents are role models and can show their children the benefits of quality time spent offline. Additional strategies include:
- Delaying access. Delay the age of first use as much as possible so that your child has the time and opportunity to develop healthy relationships with peers and coping skills to handle what they might encounter online.
- Setting reasonable limits. Social media use should not interfere with activities, sleep, meals or homework.
- Encouraging involvement in offline activities. Children who participate in activities that they are interested in – sports, music, volunteering, etc. – build skills, connections and self-esteem. When adolescents and teens feel good about themselves the negative images on social media lose their power.
- Supporting face-to-face interactions. Take time to connect with your child and let them know that you are available for them. Also, encourage your child to spend time with friends, by inviting them over or going out with them.
The prevalence of technology and social media has added another level of challenges to protecting the mental health of young people with attachment issues. But through constructive parenting, you can continue to build the connections that will help to protect them from the risks.