A Q&A with Dr. Manoj Sharma on the impact of social media, stress and sleep deprivation among teens.

Mohini’s dilemma with her teenage son

Mohini* (name changed on request) is a 39-year-old first-generation immigrant from India who lives in San Jose, California. She is an Information Technology (IT) Consultant with and since the COVID-19 pandemic works remotely from home. Her husband, Rajesh, is also in the IT sector but works in sales and has a touring job. They have a 15-year old son, Rahul.  

Rahul was a great student in middle school and excelled in academics, sports, and engaged regularly in extracurricular activities.  Since entering high school, he spends most of his time on social media, has reduced his circle of friends, and is “glued” to his cell phone.  He has lost interest in sports and extracurricular activities.  He is awake late at night texting, and surfing the Internet. 

All this started during the COVID-19 pandemic but has now become somewhat problematic for him. From a straight “A” student he has become a mediocre student in academics. Upon questioning he does not want to talk about it and is sometimes discourteous in his responses. A concerned Mohini shared the situation with us and asked us some questions. 

Dr. Sharma, an Indian American global public health expert, author, and educator who has written several books and publications on health and wellness, answers these queries from a medical, behavioral, social, and philosophical perspective.

Question: Is Rahul’s behavior abnormal?  

Dr. Sharma: The distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” has been debated and there is no consensus among scientists and other medical practitioners. It is not wise to classify people as normal or abnormal because there are no permanent states in anyone’s life.  However, behaviors based on societal norms can sometimes be interpreted as normal or not  normal.  

Besides being socially acceptable, normal behavior is generally considered to be adaptive and functional while behaviors that are not socially acceptable, atypical, or disruptive  can be construed as being abnormal. 

Based on the background provided by Mohini, Rahul’s behavior is clearly not abnormal in any way.  This type of behavior pattern comprising excessive social media use, sleep deprivation, and stress is becoming very common among adolescents especially in the US-born children of first-generation Indian immigrants, and particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

These children have to adjust between two cultures with different value sets besides physiological and psychological changes. In Rahul’s case, additionally, both parents are busy career professionals and he does not have siblings or other influential role models outside home. 

The COVID-19 pandemic heightened social isolation and created a greater dependence on social media which  aggravated this situation. Overall, there is no need to be distressed over this, and preventive measures can be undertaken to avert this situation from worsening.

Question: What is excessive social media exposure?

Dr. Sharma: This is a rapidly evolving area of research, and Dr. Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon General has also identified it as such. Studies show that both low and excessive use of social media are detrimental and are related to decreased well-being while moderate use is related to enhanced well-being. 

This is in accordance with all scientific and philosophical perspectives that moderation is the key. So, to be able to balance academics, sports, and extracurricular activities along with the use of social media can be considered moderation for school-going adolescents.  

Some signs of problematic social media use among adolescents are the inability to stop using even when one wants to, making undue efforts to have continuous access to social media, strong cravings, lying about use, and loss of relationships and educational achievements.

Question: What are the benefits and harms of social media?

Dr. Sharma:  The benefits and harms of social media must be examined within the context of their lives, and in terms of what adolescents see and do on the various platforms and their innate strengths and weaknesses. Some of the benefits are social support, online camaraderie, and development of emotional bonds. These can foster healthy socialization. 

On the negative side, sometimes these relationships may not be age-appropriate or healthy and may entice the youth to engage in risky behaviors.  Another potential harm is that of cyberbullying and “cyberhate” which make minors and adolescents particularly vulnerable.  

Social media also causes social comparisons especially related to physical appearance which can lead to low self-esteem, misperceptions about body image, eating disorders, and depression. Use of social media by adolescents requires close parental monitoring and guidance.

Question: What can Mohini and Rajesh do to help Rahul?

Dr. Sharma: Rahul is showing some signs of problematic social media use characterized by making undue efforts to obtain continuous access to social media, and loss of relationships and educational achievements. Not wanting to give up this habit can potentially lead to more problems. 

In order to help Rahul, Mohini and Rajesh should: 

  • Provide unconditional love and support. 
  • They should discuss with Rahul the necessity of at least eight hours of sleep  with regular wake-up and go-to-bed times and establish definitive guidelines. It is helpful to set some boundaries. 
  • They should suggest that he stop all social media use at least an hour before sleep time. 
  • They should encourage him to participate in regular physical activities;  both parents can be role models and do those activities with him. 
  • All of them should spend time together in ways that do not involve technology such as playing board games, painting, singing, and so on.  
  • They should find resources and familiarize Rahul with social media literacy and stress management skills. 
  • Finally, Rahul should be encouraged to bring home some of his friends from school so that he can interact face-to-face with them instead of through the media.

Question: What resources are available to assist Mohini and Rajesh so they can help Rahul?

Dr. Sharma: With regard to counseling adolescents by parents, here are some resources:

* Name changed on request.

Manoj Sharma, MBBS, Ph.D., MCHES® is an Indian American global public health expert, author, and educator who has written several books and publications on mental health. He answers queries from a medical,...