Do you know what your children see on their smartphones every day? Most parents would be shocked. A study now shows that social media consumption can have devastating consequences for your health.

Almost 9 out of 10 people who use the Internet are also active on social media. Almost all of the 14 to 29 year olds are, namely 98 percent. There are certainly many people under 14 who are already on social media platforms – there are no exact figures, as most networks are officially only allowed to be used from the age of 14. However, it is more than unlikely that all children will adhere to this age restriction.

However, the fact that more and more young people are using platforms like TikTok or Instagram is not without consequences – both for their mental health and for their physical health.

The specific impact that social media use has on the mental health of children and young people is still controversial. However, various studies suggest at least a connection with anxiety, depression, eating disorders and stress. In addition, for many, social media is an addictive factor that should not be underestimated. It is also well documented that it has a negative influence on body image and self-esteem. 

But physical health can also suffer when young people spend a lot of time on social media, as a recent study from Great Britain shows.

Children and young people who spend a lot of time on social media platforms are more likely to smoke cigarettes and e-cigarettes than children who use social media less often. This is the result of a large-scale study that was recently published in the journal “Thorax”.

The more time young people spend on social media platforms, the more likely they are to turn to cigarettes or e-cigarettes.

The link is most evident among those who use social media for seven hours or more per day:  They are almost four times more likely to smoke e-cigarettes than non-users, and eight times more likely to smoke regular cigarettes.

But even low levels of social media use have an impact on smoking behavior:

While only 0.8 percent of children and adolescents who do not spend time on social media use e-cigarettes and two percent use regular cigarettes, among those who spend one to three hours a day on the platforms, 2.4 percent use e-cigarettes and 9.2 percent use regular cigarettes.

The researchers relied on data from 10- to 25-year-olds who took part in the UK Household Longitudinal Study, a long-term study that collected data from 10,808 participants between 2015 and 2021. The results were independent of other factors associated with increased risk of cigarette and e-cigarette smoking, including age, gender, household income and parental smoking habits.

However, since this is an observational study, no firm conclusions about causal relationships can be drawn. Another limitation is that it involves self-disclosure from the participants. In addition, it was not recorded how much time was spent on which social media platforms. Nevertheless, the researchers have some explanations for their results:

“The first and most plausible explanation is that the companies behind cigarettes and e-cigarettes use social media to promote their products,” the study says.

“This includes algorithmically targeted direct advertising and the use of paid social media influencers who portray cigarette and e-cigarette smoking as a fashionable and desirable activity. The more time you spend on social media, the more exposed you are to these forms of influence,” explain the researchers.

It has also been shown that the use of social media has similarities with reward-seeking addictive behavior. High levels of social media use can increase susceptibility to other addictive behaviors such as smoking.

Additionally, the use of social media as a space largely unsupervised by parents or other guardians could encourage transgressive behavior, including smoking.

The fact that children and young people could start smoking is just one of the many dangers that young people are exposed to on social media platforms. Parents should be aware of the content their children may encounter before providing them with the appropriate devices or access.

“People who use social networks very intensively are apparently noticeably affected by sleep problems, anxiety, depression and eating disorders,” writes the Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA) in a brochure on the subject of eating disorders. Preoccupation with social media can increase dissatisfaction with one’s own body. Then there would be a risk that the tips from Instagram or YouTube idols for a perfect body would be adopted.

Since social media platforms work with algorithms, children and young people may repeatedly see posts about topics in which they were once interested. This can quickly give the impression that everyone thinks that way, that everyone does it that way and that it must be right.

However, the danger does not only lie in the issue of body image. Children and young people can regularly encounter images of violence, torture, racism, war crimes, pornography, animal cruelty, self-harm and more on the Internet.

Hardly any adult knows or can imagine what the digital everyday life of children and young people looks like today, says school principal and digital ambassador for the state of Lower Saxony, Silke Müller. With her book “We are losing our children”, which was published in 2023, she strongly appeals to parents, politicians and society to stop looking the other way.

“The problem, in my view, is that the dangers are widespread today and we can no longer control them. It is no longer the limited space of ‘party’, it is no longer the limited space of ‘alone on the street’, but the danger that children can be sexually addressed on the Internet, see images that glorify violence, be confronted with racist content and much more more, exists at any time, around the clock,” said Müller in the FOCUS online interview.

The headmistress therefore regularly confronts the parents at her school with the photos, videos and memes that the children see online. This shows how little most parents know about what is happening on their children’s smartphones:

“The parents are shocked. They sometimes sit there and cover their eyes. And these are the moments when I say: Please look! Because these are the things your children see. I don’t hold back when it comes to the pictures that I show the parents. I make sure that the account owner cannot be identified. But we show pictures and videos that children have actually seen. And the parents are shocked and say they didn’t know.”

“We are losing our children” by Silke Müller, published by Droemer-Verlag.

Müller believes that the ongoing rush on child psychiatric hospitals and psychosomatic clinics cannot be explained solely by the corona pandemic. In her opinion, parents should not underestimate the influence of social networks and this media world in which children swim like in a shark tank:

“I am not a psychologist. But I hear that the child psychology practices are all overcrowded and the children are taking forever to get an appointment. I hear that child psychiatrists and children’s clinics for psychosomatic problems have long waiting lists. I also notice from the daily arguments at our school that the children treat each other differently. And I notice that this is developing very quickly.”

Your urgent appeal is therefore: Start a conversation with your child! If parents met their children as equals, they would have a chance of winning them back. Above all, it is important that children can confide in their parents without having to fear that they will be punished. As parents, it is important to be open and take action.

“I can launch as many media education programs as I want. But what the children need is a hand in this shark tank. What they need is protection and support. And that is our very own task: to protect children,” says Müller. In her book, she has compiled a list of valuable tips:

In her book “We are losing our children”, Silke Müller has put together some valuable tips for parents that should help to adequately accompany and protect children in everyday digital life.