Social media was originally thought to be something that would expand our worldview and help us feel connected to people who don’t live in our neighborhood.  With only a few swipes on their smartphones, teens can now meet more people, develop relationships and have more opportunities for seeing beyond the world around them… or so it may seem.  What’s actually happening is that teens are becoming more sheltered and less independent than any generation before them.

According to social psychologist Jean Twenge:

  • Today’s 12th graders spend less time outside of the house without their parents than 8th graders did in 2009.
  • The number of teens who spend time daily with friends dropped by 40% between 2000 and 2015. (Smartphones became popular around 2012.)
  • Only 55% of high school seniors have jobs when school is in session, compared to 77% during the late 1970s.
  • Teens are also driving less and depending on parents more for rides.

This isolation has had a painful effect on our teenagers.  Jean Twenge states that rates of depression and suicide are so high that members of Generation Z are “on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.” How did this happen? Listed below are some ways that social media harms teens.

  • Social media prevents teens from learning or practicing social skills. The teen years are when the social skills necessary for adulthood are learned, practiced and improved. Because of social media, teens don’t get the chance to put in the work of getting to know a person because everything about that person is already posted and on display.
  • Because of social media, being ignored is now intensified. With all the ways teens communicate instantly through their phones and can see if their messages have been read, teens know when they are being ignored. Because teens lack impulse control, they often reply immediately and they expect the same of their peers. When a teen sees that a friend is ignoring them, the teen feels anxious, ignored, frustrated and unimportant.
  • Social media makes it very easy for teens to know when they’re being left out. When today’s adults were teens, we didn’t know we were left out of a gathering unless someone told us or we overheard someone talking about it. Missing out hurts. These days, all a teen has to do is open their favorite app to see what their friends are doing without them – and others can see it, too. Knowing instantly that they have been left out and that others know about it – even while the event is still happening – can be devastating for a teen.
  • Social media makes it difficult for teens to consider other points-of-view. Social media platforms like Tumblr encourage people to only interact with people who think like they think. The  algorithms for Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are constantly being changed, and the trend is moving toward the same kind of like-minded interaction.  If teens are only talking to other teens who also feel lonely and depressed, they won’t hear different points-of-view.  Because their brains are still developing, teens can’t see beyond the situation they are experiencing.  When they talk only to other teens who feel as they feel, they don’t realize that people actually care about and will listen to them.
  • Social media can harm a teen’s already-fragile self-image. People tend to post only the photos and details about their lives that they want others to see. Because teens don’t understand that what they see online isn’t real, they compare their own lives to the perfect, happy lives they see and feel they can’t measure up to others. This leads to feelings of insecurity, jealousy, loneliness and depression. The problem gets worse when a teen receives “likes” and praise on a fake life they show online because it supports their belief that their regular lives aren’t good enough. It’s a vicious cycle.
  • Quality time and relationships suffer when social media is a priority. People tend to pay attention to others who are not present more than the people who are right in front of them. We’ve all ignored things in our lives because we were playing on our phones. Teens are no exception; when they are distracted by an app or texting with friends, they aren’t spending time strengthening relationships with the people who are physically around and care about them – their families and actual friends.

 Now that you know the ways social media can hurt teens, here are some ways you can help reduce the damage:

  • Set a limit for your teen of 2 hours per day of phone/screen time. (Go ahead and assume that at least 30 minutes are used at school.)This boundary might be difficult to set and maintain, but you’ll be helping your teen immensely. This will work best if the entire family has to follow the limitation.
  • Encourage your teen to get naturally high. A natural high comes from participating in any activity they enjoy, even if they aren’t good at it. Support and encourage your teen in finding THEIR OWN natural high, not what you want for them. Doing so will be especially helpful for improving their self-esteem.
  • Unplug and spend time with your teen and your family when everyone is together. Sit down for a family dinner and have everyone put their devices in a separate place. Being present with your other family members will strengthen your relationships with each other and also set a positive example for your teen.
  • Tell your teen to get to work!  As long as it leaves plenty of time for completing schoolwork and spending time with family, a part-time job will provide opportunities to practice social skills, learn responsibility, impulse control and discipline and make their own money while being independent. A bonus is that they won’t be able to play on their phone!
  • Take an interest in your teen. Don’t just ask “How was your day?” and leave them alone. Ask open-ended questions about their daily lives and ask about the things THEY think are important, even if you don’t understand.  Listening to your teen will help you understand them better and will let them know you care. When you’re asking your questions, be sure BOTH of you are free from cell phones or other distractions.
  • Get them moving. Exercising regularly causes the brain to release feel-good chemicals that may help with depression. It also reduces fatigue, helps with concentration, helps increase self-esteem, serves as a healthy distraction and is a positive way to cope with difficult situations and feelings. Also, it’s an opportunity for them to look at the world around them. It doesn’t have to be intense or last a long period of time. What’s important is that your teen gets moving and does it often. Again, this will work best if you’re setting an example and doing it too.
  • Encourage your teen to spend time with friends, in person. Invite their friends over for pizza – and have them turn in their phones at the door. They may think it’s lame at first, but they will enjoy the face-to-face time and will actually communicate with each other, which will strengthen those relationships.

Strengthening your teen from the negative effects of social media may be difficult, as he or she will not see the benefit and you’ll be met with resistance, but you know what’s best for your child.  You can do it!

Parents, pay attention to your teen’s social media use.  They need your help to be safe!