• Jillian Domingue

Understanding the Impact of Social Media

Parenting teens has never been an easy job, but today’s technology contributes new challenges that leave many of us feeling overwhelmed and underprepared. According to a 2020 Pew Research survey, two-thirds of parents say parenting is harder today than it was 20 years ago, citing technology in general and social media as the top two reasons. But social media is here to stay, and many parents and teens say it can be beneficial, too. The bottom line? Families need facts to make balanced and informed decisions. Here we outline the real impact of social media on teens and share expert suggestions for navigating new technologies.

First, let’s look at the downside. Researchers say social media plays a major role in teen mental health, bullying, and body image. Several studies link increased time spent on social media with higher rates of depression and suicide among teens. During the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of cyberbullying increased as teens spent more time online, with 21% of adolescents between the ages of 10-18 reporting some form of cyberbullying. And 40% of teens say their body image is negatively impacted by Instagram and other social media apps. Another worry is that teens can’t seem to stop social media: in one study, 67% of parents said they have been concerned that their teen is addicted. Privacy is also paramount, as parents wonder how their teens' data is collected and how it will be used.

Despite these troubling statistics, experts agree that not all of the responsibility lies with social media. Psychologist Jeffrey Pickens says, “We cannot blame technology for our social problems. These tools, like any other, can be used for good or mischief.” As with any other tool, Pickens says parents must educate themselves, set appropriate boundaries, and talk to their teens about potential pitfalls. “It is important for parents to talk with teens about the pros and cons of online interactions, how to defend themselves from negative people and messages, and how to enjoy activities that unplug us from the online metaverse.” Pickens and others say that parents taking an active role in their teens’ digital lives helps them avoid straying too far into the scary side of social media.

And while the upside of social media gets less attention, the benefits to teens are real. It allows teens to build meaningful relationships, express themselves creatively, learn about the world, develop empathy, and experiment with crafting their identities. Online communities provide (sometimes life-saving) support for teens, especially those who identify as LBGTQIA+, have disabilities or illnesses, or are socially excluded. Many teens use social media to make an outsized impact as activists, artists, and entrepreneurs. In a 2018 Pew Research survey, 81% of teens said social media helps them feel more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives, 71% said it allows them to show their creativity, and 68% said it gives them the feeling that they have people who can support them through tough times.

To help teens make the best of social media and stay safe, experts recommend that parents implement the following strategies:

  • Wait to get them their first phone. Most kids in the U.S. get their first phone at age 10. While every family should base the decision on their individual needs, waiting even a little longer can benefit kids by giving them more time to mature. “The younger that they are, the more likely they are to have more online harassment happen, because they've been on it longer, they have more followers, they have more chances for mean things happening online, (and) more online drama,” says Linda Charmaraman, PhD, founder and director of the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at Wellesley.

  • Monitor their accounts. When kids do get their first phone, let them know that you’ll be checking their social media accounts regularly. Once a week is a good goal. Since it’s harder to set a new rule once teens are used to phone freedom, it’s best to start early and stay consistent.

  • Give them examples and explain what’s ok and not ok. Adolescents need to know exactly what counts as gossiping, bullying, or spreading rumors, as well as explanations for why it's hurtful and what harm it causes. They also need to know what’s safe and appropriate to share and what isn’t. Set rules, but talk about them together so teens know you’re concerned for their safety, not trying to control them or invade their privacy.

  • Prioritize face-to-face friendships. The COVID-19 pandemic upended teens’ social lives and made online connections an even bigger part of their reality. But social media is no substitute for real-world connections, and teens need a balance of both. Encourage your teen’s offline friendships by getting to know their friends, planning fun activities, and providing transportation and a safe space to hang out.

  • Keep talking and hold each other accountable. Parents can be a powerful example of social media self-awareness. Pay attention to your own social media habits and screen time. Talk to your teen about digital devices and different platforms. Ask genuinely curious questions. Decide together what your family’s best practices look like, from setting up a charging station for phones outside bedrooms to planning device-free fun time.

Above all, remember that you’re still the most important influence in your teen’s life. When you stay as involved in their online life as you are offline, teens can explore social media and experience its benefits while staying safe.

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