Teen social media use is a central component of their lives and understanding its effects on teens is important when considering healthy adolescent development and well-being. There is a growing body of research that examines teenagers’ patterns of use and how excessive amounts of time spent on social media can adversely impact identity development and self-esteem, communication and social skills, expression of empathy and mental and physical health.1
Social media is not all bad and many teens utilize it in a balanced manner without experiencing difficulty; however, the risks and potential issues are important to understand, as all youth are vulnerable to its impacts. The current article will furnish you with knowledge about some common risks, how to recognize if your teen has a problem, and how to help your teen establish and maintain balanced, informed and intentional use of social media.
What Are the Positives of Teenage Social Media Use?
According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 95% of teens ages 13-17 said they owned a smartphone and 45% of those teens said they are on-line on a nearly constant basis. The survey also found that there is no consensus among teens about the effect that social media has on the lives of young people today. Minorities of teens describe the effect as mostly positive (31%) or mostly negative (24%) but the largest number (45%) say the effects are neither positive nor negative.
The 31% who reported that social media was mostly positive offered the following main reasons for finding social media positive:2
- Connecting with friends and family—40%
- Easier to find new info—16%
- Meeting others with the same interests—15%
- Keeps you entertained/upbeat—9%
- Getting support from others—5%
- Learning new things—4%
What Are the Negative Effects of Social Media Use on Teens?
While social media offers plenty of connection and information for teens, it’s essential to consider how a child’s baseline functioning and amount of time spent on devices might be harmed by social media. It is easy for a teenager’s use to transition from periodic engagement with social media as a tool to connect, into a chronic distraction that has the power to influence development, mental health and well-being.3
Some teens in the Pew Survey recognized that the influence of social media on youth was mostly negative and they offered the following main reasons for their beliefs:2
- Bullying/Rumor Spreading—27%
- Harms Relationships/Lack of in-person contact—17%
- Unrealistic views of others’ lives—15%
- Causes Distractions/addiction—14%
- Peer Pressure—12%
- Causes Mental Health Issues—4%
- Drama, in general—3%
It is difficult to measure how social media causes adolescent distress in comparison with other difficulties, such as family stress, competition, academic or athletic setbacks, romantic difficulties and so on; however, a growing body of research presents compelling evidence of a correlation between the amount of time spent on social media and identity formation and self-esteem, communication and social skills, empathy and narcissism and increased risk for mental and physical health problems.4
What follows is a brief discussion of each of these potentially problematic impacts and how too much time with devices and social media can undermine healthy development in these areas.
Social Media & Identity Development/Self-Esteem
Identity development is a central feature of adolescence. Crucial for healthy development is the availability of time for adolescents to reflect on their interactions and experiences, to make determinations and to adapt their thinking or behavior if they deem it necessary.
They have to practice being alone, self-aware and self-reliant. Unfortunately, the design and content of social media does not support a path toward authentic self-discovery and, in fact, can significantly undermine and confuse the process.
Key elements of social media that can hurt healthy identity development include:
- Constant connection
- Immediate feedback (likes, comments, retweets etc.)
- Public and permanent
- FOMO (Fear of missing out)
- Selfies and self-promotion
- Social comparison
- Information overload
On-line, we don’t turn inward to our own experience; on the contrary, we are under constant assault by information from external sources. Social networking sites showcase and perpetuate a culture of perfection in which teens spend hours scrolling, posting, liking and commenting in their pursuit to discover themselves. When they post selfies, teens are hoping to receive positive feedback, but their hopes are not always realized.
This feedback (not their authentic self-knowledge) in-turn, shapes their beliefs and how they feel about themselves. We are not designed to integrate the social approval of hundreds of people, and yet young people are being compelled to design their lives based on a façade of perfection which is powerfully reinforced by the hits of dopamine (more on this later in the article) that come from likes, emojis, comments, retweets etc.
This landscape confuses many teens at best and causes suffering for some at worst. It is painful for teens who can recognize a discrepancy between their authentic experience (natural) and their on-line world (designed) but can’t understand why they feel so depressed or anxious or confused about solutions for their unhappiness.
Social Media & Communication/Social Skills
To develop communication and social skills, we need practice knowing ourselves, putting our thoughts and feelings into words, recognizing the impact of our words on other people etc. There is a lot involved in learning and practicing communication skills in order to effectively meet the challenges of our diverse, complex and unpredictable lives. We need experiences that will support that practice and fundamental skill development.
While there is plenty of interaction that takes place on social media, the nature of that communication tends to be different than the spontaneous, reciprocal and unscripted dialogues we experience in person. On-line conversations tend to be more carefully crafted, controlled, brief, superficial and overwhelmingly positive.5 They do not require any reflective or active listening skills, nor do they encourage thoughtfulness about another’s feeling or opinions.
We tend to express more disinhibition due to a perceived sense of anonymity and we are removed from the impact of our words on others, as non-verbal communication is most often absent in these exchanges. Recent research reveals concerning trends in skill deficits related to communication and interpersonal relationships.
One Survey of children ages 11-18 found that 50% of them agreed with the statement, “I find it easier to be myself on the internet than when I am with people face to face.” This is particularly dire given the confusion social media can create about identity development. Another study looked at pairs of college students and the degree of emotional bonding over time in 4 different conditions. The researchers asked the pairs to communicate exclusively in 1 of 4 ways: face to face, video chat, audio chat and instant messaging.
The results of the study were very clear. The pairs in the face to face condition experienced the greatest emotional connection and the pairs in the messaging condition had the least amount of connection.6 The skills of active listening, emotional regulation, spontaneous responding and accurate interpretation of non-verbal communication are essential for the development of empathy and healthy interpersonal relationships.
Social Media & Narcissism/Empathy
Unfortunately, research has shown that in the past 20 years there has been a 40% decline in markers for empathy among college students and most of that decline is noted in the last 10 years, which we know corresponds with the introduction of smartphones in 2007 and Tablets in 2010.7 Without empathy, the establishment and maintenance of healthy relationships, both personally and professionally, is very difficult. Intimacy is impossible. In fact, without empathy, it is hard for a person to see beyond their own world. This limited view and self-focus, when taken to an extreme, can lead to narcissism, a personality disturbance marked by selfishness, entitlement, need for admiration, self-centeredness and lack of empathy.
The insidious problem with social media is that it invites self-promotion, social comparison, and undue sensitivity to external public opinion, and this exacerbates the adolescent’s otherwise natural and healthy tendency toward self-centeredness. We have to ask ourselves what happens when a teen’s real-life mirror becomes a virtual one in the form of a selfie?
On-line, it is easy for teens to become consumed with their reflections as they try to figure out who they are, and we have to think about the ramifications of this. Could teens that are overexposed to technology and without enough face- to- face interaction, remain in a state of psychological isolation, retreating into their reflection rather than turning to friends or family for comfort and physical interaction? Sadly, the answer is yes.
Social Media & Cyberbullying
A culture online that does not promote empathy, coupled with the public, competitive and seemingly anonymous environment of social media, sets a perfect stage for disinhibited and emboldened behavior which easily takes the form of cyberbullying. A Pew Research Center survey finds that 59% of U.S. teens have personally experienced at least one of six types of abusive online behaviors.2
The most common types of harassment encountered on-line are as follows:2
|Name-calling on-line or via their cell phones||42%||41%|
|False rumors spread about them on the internet||32%||26%|
|Receiving explicit images they didn’t ask for||25%||20%|
|Constantly being asked where they are, who they’re with or what they’re doing||21%||18%|
|Having explicit images of them sent without their consent||7%||5%|
Online harassment does not necessarily begin and end with one specific behavior, and 40% of teens have experienced two or more of these actions. Girls are more likely than boys to have experienced several different forms of online bullying with 15% of teen girls reporting they have been the target of at least four of these online behaviors, compared with 6% of boys.2
Today, school officials, tech companies and lawmakers are looking for ways to combat cyberbullying. Some schools have implemented policies that punish students for harassing messages even when those exchanges occur off campus.
Anti-bullying tools are being offered by social media companies, and several states have enacted laws prohibiting cyberbullying and other forms of electronic harassment. While these developments are positive steps in protecting our youth, cyberbullying is quite pervasive on-line and plays a significant role in diminished mental health and well-being for too many teens.
Social Media & Mental/Physical Health
Although adolescence has long been understood as a period of increased risk for mental health symptoms, heightened concern has been driven by recent and striking increases in anxiety, depressive symptoms8 and suicidal behavior.9 Rates of suicide among youth aged 10-24 have increased 56% from 2007 to 2017.10 These rates rose most steeply among 10- to 14-year-old girls, with a rate that tripled between 1999 and 2017.
Adolescents of color are especially vulnerable: 12.5% of Black and 10.5% of Latina adolescent girls in grades 9–12 reported having attempted suicide at least once in the past 12 months, as compared to 7.3% of White females and 9.8% of Black, 8.2% of Latino, and 6.1% of White male adolescents, respectively. Furthermore, researchers have found that individuals reporting symptoms consistent with social anxiety disorder evidenced a heavier reliance on social media networks for interaction to the exclusion of face-to-face conversation.11
A 2019 study of more than 6,500 12- to 15-year-olds in the U.S. found that those who spent more than three hours a day using social media might be at heightened risk for mental health problems.12 A 2016 study of more than 450 teens found that greater social media use, nighttime social media use and emotional investment in social media — such as feeling upset when prevented from logging on — were each linked with worse sleep quality and higher levels of anxiety and depression.13
More studies will always be welcome, but there is enough research available which, when coupled with the front-line observations of parents, teachers, and clinicians, leaves no doubt of the problems society faces. Indeed, two nations, China and South Korea, have already declared the overuse of social media by youth is a public health crisis.
Risk of Social Media Addiction
Although social media addiction is not currently included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), its symptoms are similar to another behavioral addiction that is included in the manual, compulsive gambling. This is not surprising, as social media companies employ the same principles of human behavior and the psychology of persuasion to market their products as do slot machine developers.
Social media networks are intentionally designed to keep us hooked and coming back for more. There is substantial evidence from brain imaging studies that demonstrate how the same areas of the brain activated with substance abuse or gambling are activated when receiving a like or notification on social media or navigating our way through a massive multiplayer online role-playing game like World of Warcraft.14
Warning signs of social media addiction include the following:
- Loses track of time and/or does not follow time limits when using electronic devices
- Prefers electronics and on-line relationships to being with friends and family
- Lies about use/Sneaking use of a device
- Drops out of sports or other extra-curricular activities
- Avoids homework and chores
- Loses focus on school
- Sleeps in School
- Drop in grades
- Family or social conflict
- Issues with mental or physical health
- Becomes agitated when interrupted
- Restless when not using a device and are preoccupied with getting back on
- Increased moodiness, irritability and depression when attempting to limit use of technology
- Lack of motivation to engage in other activities
Signs That Social Media Is Affecting Your Teen’s Mental Health
While the behaviors and trends listed above can be indications of problematic social media use or addiction, your teen’s mental health may be affected by social media if you are noticing any of the following:
- Isolating and wanting to be alone more than usual
- Exhibiting anxiety or depressed mood after being on-line, or in general
- Being more irritable or aggressive than usual
- Acting secretive about time spent on-line, hiding their screens etc.
- Lack of motivation or interest in pleasurable activities (not on-line)
- Over-focus on physical appearance, altered/revealing clothing choices or concerns about body image
- Changes in appetite or sleep
- Lack of concentration
- Diminished ability to complete daily tasks and self-care
- Increased defiance
- Substance Abuse
- Suicidal ideation
Of course, there are many other challenges a teenager may encounter that could lead to the development of these symptoms, but there are numerous studies that show a correlation between excessive use of social media and many of these difficulties.
Helping Your Teen Set Healthy Boundaries With Social Media
Helping teens set healthy boundaries with social media is one of the greatest challenges today’s parents are facing. The rapid growth of the technology industry, lack of experience, mixed messages, manipulative designs, chronic conflict and confusion can make achieving balanced media use seem impossible, but it is not. It takes information, hard work and perseverance, but it is absolutely possible to set healthy boundaries with social media if you adopt the following tips and one day (maybe sooner than you think) your teen will thank you for it.
The following are helpful tips for setting healthy social media boundaries:
1. Engage With & Support Your Child
Engaging with your child is the most protective and positive thing you can do when trying to set healthy boundaries with social media. The cultural trends of distraction, multi-tasking, and constant connection can make it challenging to remain present, available and as engaged as our teens need us to be. Furthermore, they are often quite adept at trying to push us away or making it seem like we’re the last person they want to speak with, but don’t be fooled!
Teens need your guidance, support and encouragement more than they will ever let on. They need help navigating the complex landscape of social media and understanding how excessive use can undermine their development and well-being. They need reassurance that they will be ok and that you understand what they are going through. If we don’t teach them about healthy development and the need for real world experiences, and we don’t explain the risks and limitations of social media, how will they know the difference?
2. Educate Yourself & Your Teen
There are no shortcuts, but our kids are worth it. We need to educate ourselves about all aspects of technology and how our teens are using it. We have to build bridges and move away from frustration and simply try to assert control in helping our teens set healthy boundaries with social media. In order to have a meaningful and productive dialogue with teens in this digital age, we need to enter their online worlds in a positive way and take an interest. Educate yourself about your teen and the world they inhabit.
3. Model Behavior & Set Limits
The first step toward being able to model behavior is getting clear with yourself about your own beliefs and practices regarding technology. What do you do in your life that does not involve technology – reading, sports and workouts, cooking, gardening, pet care, etc.? Can you go beyond modeling and include your children in some of these activities?
All of us are vulnerable to developing problematic patterns of use with social media and it’s essential that you assess your own behavior and habits with technology, especially if you have a teenager. One of the major peeves of adolescence is witnessing hypocrisy and experiencing arbitrary limits or consequences by their parents or other authority figures.
- Approach your teen with openness and curiosity about their experience
- Emphasize and encourage real world interactions and activities
- Help your teen discover their interests
- Model and encourage empathy
- Help teens learn to identify, express and regulate emotions
- Teach your teen to think critically and solve problems
- Explain that life is challenging and unpredictable and that they need specific skills to ensure success and well-being in adulthood
- Model and encourage self-awareness and confidence and explain how social media can interfere
- Design a family media use plan with rules and guidelines for all family members to follow and allow your teen to offer their input
- Set clear expectations and limits regarding digital media content and time spent on devices
- Designate device free times and zones for unplugging (i.e. no phones at the dinner table, during a social gathering, in the car etc.)
- Keep devices out of the bedroom and do not let teens sleep with their phones
- Do not allow phones and/or additional screens while completing homework
If you find yourself struggling to implement or follow these recommendations, you are not alone. How social media impacts our teens is a complex and multi-faceted issue that requires a well-informed and comprehensive response. This article has illustrated this complexity and provided some essential information intended to help improve how you engage with and support your teenager regarding their use of social media.
If it feels overwhelming and confusing to keep up with the latest on-line trends, to engage effectively with your teen about digital media use and to consistently enforce appropriate limits, it’s because it is overwhelming and confusing! The good news is that there is increasing mainstream awareness, research and specialized support for parents and teens struggling to manage media habits. It is not easy, but changes and improvements can be made and it’s never too late.
How Social Media Affects Teens Infographics