Adolescents and Social Media

What does it mean to be an adolescent growing up in a world saturated with social media? This is a new and uncharted territory and parents have little data for understanding its impact – both negative and positive.

Adolescence is a time in lifespan development that brings about dramatic changes—physical, intellectual, emotional, and social.  While these changes occur throughout life, they can be particularly daunting during the tween and teen years. 

Social media has become part of this passage into adulthood and while there are benefits to its use, the pitfalls can cause emotional distress to individuals and their families. For parents and primary caregivers, who did not have this same rite of passage into adulthood, it is all the more necessary to understand new media’s impact in order to navigate its complexity.

The Impact of Social Media Use on Development

Social media is ubiquitous: for virtually all young people, it is the way they connect and communicate. In fact, 81% of adolescents report that the use of social media makes them feel more connected to their friends. This is an obvious benefit to the use of social media amongst adolescents.

Yet this is new terrain for many parents raising a generation of children who only know a world with social media. This is especially critical as teens feel tremendous pressure to "fit in" with peers as they leave childhood and move toward adulthood.

The Risks of Social Media

Mental Health – Adolescence is a time of social pressure, identity formation, and emotional ups and downs. For those that are able to seamlessly develop and maintain friend groups and a sense of belonging, social media is a point of connection and positivity. However, we know that peer rejection and lack of close friendships increases the risk of developing depression and low self-esteem. Research shows that some teens who are excessive users of social media are often bored, unhappy, and tend to get into more trouble than their peers. The emotional toll of social media on young women’s and girls’ self-image can be especially high.

Cyberbullying – While bullying has been going on for many generations, tech savvy or otherwise, the prevalence of social media as the primary medium of communication opens up what can be an abyss of emotional distress for teens. This is a new level of bullying that has potentially fatal consequences. It is especially daunting for LGBTQ teens, as well as young women as they are most often the targets of this kind of bullying.  And those who are victims of cyberbullying are likely in turn to perpetuate it. It is a vicious cycle and can happen to anyone in this age group, leading to outcomes such as depression, anxiety, isolation, and suicide. 

Text and Picture Messaging – One of the inherent problems with text messaging is the absence of visual cues. Text messaging (or video-gaming, e.g.) replacing face-to-face interactions creates a two-fold problem that can impact empathy and accountability. Teens are now, in a way, more deprived of visual cues than previous generations were, who could see the emotional impact of a certain type of communication. When a message is sent without seeing the recipient, it is easy for miscommunication to occur, which in turn diminishes accountability. Because of their still developing capacity for self-regulation and their susceptibility to peer pressure, children and adolescents are at some risk as they navigate and experiment with social media.

The exchange of photos and videos in this demographic is lightning quick. It is important that tweens and teens, and their parents, understand that any personal information put out into the ether can easily be misused by others. Young people need to understand the potentially damaging consequences of what they exchange with their peers. Messages, especially pictures and videos, can last longer and thus be more injurious than a face-to- face interaction or event. Sexting, for example, can leave a lasting negative impact on a young person’s life. It is estimated that 20% of teens have sent and received sexually explicit images or messages. Often teens engage in sexting without thinking about the consequences.

To sum up the risks, the adolescent brain is still developing and in one impulsive move, young lives can be greatly altered. Some of the emotional consequences include: bullying, embarrassment, humiliation, loss of friendships, feelings of guilt and shame, all of which increase risks for depression, anxiety and suicide.

The Benefits of Social Media

Socialization, Communication, and Enhanced Learning Opportunities -- Social Media is a primary source of connection among tweens and teens. Because most young people use these platforms to stay connected with friends and family, as well as a way to make new friends, the benefits that come from its use are systemic and extend to self-esteem, community and the world at large. Other benefits may include increased community engagement through fundraising and volunteering for local events.

Online exchanges can also help foster individual identity and creativity by building on social skills. Teens have the opportunity to learn from each other. By broadening online connections, teens have a chance to learn about differences. These types of communication can enhance respect, tolerance, and access to a broader understanding of different social and cultural backgrounds.

For many middle- and high school-aged children, social media is also a way to connect on homework and group projects. These platforms can be a wonderful tool for collaborating and sharing ideas about assignments. In some instances, schools have successfully used blogs as a method of enhancing writing skills as well as creativity.

Support and Comfort -- Social media can offer support in different ways. There are positives for those who want to explore romantic relationships, friendships and social status. Properly curated, such platforms can be especially helpful for marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ youth, those with chronic illness or disability, or teens with low self-esteem and social anxiety.

How a Marriage and Family Therapist can Help?

As we see, social media—as any complex part of life—has its pros and cons. And for tweens and teens the risks and benefits can often be intermingled. The negative consequences of social media are systemic in that they affect our most intimate relationships.

We know that cyberbullying, for example, can have a significant psychosocial impact on adolescents. Harmful outcomes include depression, anxiety, isolation, and tragically suicide. Everyone in the family unit feels the impact of such outcomes. A marriage and family therapist is a valuable resource for helping families navigate that challenging impact that social media can have on young people. If you find your family struggling to navigate the ins and outs of social media, a marriage and family therapist can help.

Some tips for parents:

  • Set clear boundaries around the use of social media

  • Be proactive and educate your children about the negative consequences associated with social media, especially when it comes to sexting, and cyber bullying

  • Be mindful of how you use social media and set good examples for your kids

  • Protect time for the family to be together without screens being part of the equation

Find a Therapist

If you or someone you know is experiencing distress, therapy with a marriage and family therapist (MFT) can help.

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