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

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

Anxiety, depression, eating disorders

The specific impact of social media use 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, social media is an addictive factor for many that should not be underestimated. It is also well documented that it has a negative impact 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.

Social media and cigarette consumption

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

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

Even low levels of social media use have visible effects

The connection 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 are already having 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 used data from 10- to 25-year-olds participating in the UK Household Longitudinal Study, a long-term study that collected data from 10,808 participants from 2015 to 2021. The results were independent of other factors associated with an increased risk of cigarette and e-cigarette smoking, including age, gender, household income and parental smoking habits.

Hidden advertising with paid social media influencers

However, since this is an observational study, no clear conclusions can be drawn about causal relationships. Another limitation is that the participants provided information themselves. 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 smoking cigarettes and e-cigarettes as a fashionable and desirable activity. The more time you spend on social media, the more exposed you are to these forms of influence,” the researchers explain.

Connection between social media and addictive behavior

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.

In addition, the use of social media as a space that is largely unsupervised by parents or other guardians can encourage transgressive behavior, including smoking.

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

Social media and eating disorders

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

Because social media platforms work with algorithms, children and young people may repeatedly see posts about topics they were once interested in. This can quickly create the impression that everyone thinks the same way, that everyone does it the same 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.

We can no longer control the dangers

Hardly any adult knows or can imagine what the digital everyday life of children and young people looks like today, says Silke Müller, head of school and digital ambassador for the state of Lower Saxony. In her book “We are losing our children”, which was published in 2023, she strongly appeals to parents, politicians and society to no longer look away.

“The problem, in my view, is that the dangers are everywhere today, 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 approached on the Internet, see images that glorify violence, be confronted with racist content and much more, exists at any time, around the clock,” said Müller in an interview with FOCUS online.

“The parents are shocked”

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 those are the moments when I say: Please look! Because these are the things your children see. I don’t hold back with the pictures that I show the parents. I make sure that the account owner cannot be recognized. But we show pictures and videos that children have actually seen. And the parents are shocked and say they didn’t know that.”

Müller believes that the ongoing rush to child psychiatric 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’m not a psychologist. But I hear that the child psychology practices are all overcrowded and the children take forever to get an appointment. I hear that the child psychiatric clinics and the children’s clinics for psychosomatic disorders have long waiting lists. I also notice from the daily arguments at our school that the children are dealing with each other differently. And I notice that this is developing very quickly.”

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Children need “a hand in the shark tank”

Her urgent appeal is therefore: talk to your child! If parents meet their children as equals, they have a chance of winning them back. Above all, it is important that children can confide in their parents without having to worry about being punished. Parents need 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: