One Essential Tip for Parents About Teen Social Media Use

Pixabay/Erik Lucatero
Source: Pixabay/Erik Lucatero

Social media provides many benefits to teens, such as offering and receiving social support, experiencing a sense of community, and expanding one’s worldview. On the other hand, if you’re noticing troubling changes in your teen‘s mood or behavior, consider whether their social media could be the culprit or a contributor.

Information about attitudes and behaviors related to the intersection of mental wellness and social media is continually emerging. For example, a 2023 meta-analysis confirms that social media use often increases social comparisons for those who are vulnerable (McComb, Vanman, and Tobin, 2023). (That’s when a person sees someone else’s life, image, body shape, whatever, and compares it to theirs.) In rare cases, a teen seeing something they desire or envy might inspire them. However, for the most part, upward social comparisons happen from social media (McComb, Vanman, and Tobin; Verduyn and colleagues, 2020). And those tend to tank feelings of wellness and self-value; negative beliefs about oneself connect to a bevy of mental health struggles.

Research has revealed other social media-related attitudes and behaviors that may threaten mental wellness.

  • Passive use (for example, scrolling and browsing) has been associated with higher anxiety, depression, stress symptoms (Taylor, Yankouskaya, and Panourgia, 2023), and impulse buying (Zheng and colleagues, 2020).
  • Addiction-like use has been associated with ongoing distress (Huang, 2022).
  • A self-presentation focus on social networks has been associated with “more mental health problems and reduced quality of life” (Skogen and colleagues, 2021).
  • Fear of missing out (FOMO) on what’s going on online has been associated with anxiousness, interrupted sleep, inability to concentrate, and difficulty experiencing gratification outside of that offered by social media (Alutaybi and colleagues, 2020).

Though anecdotal evidence was gathered from clinical work, the following are worth mentioning.

  • “Disappearing” sexual or suggestive messages or images have haunted people for years, causing ongoing mental distress.
  • Social media trends and challenges that pop up and spread have often been influential and sometimes dangerous. (Think Tide Pod challenge to Girl Dinner trend.)
  • Going for that viral selfie has pushed safety risks too far. (A 2022 study by Linares and colleagues documented more than 379 selfie-related deaths in a 13-and-a-half-year period.)
  • Mixing perfectionism and posting together has often ended up in moodiness, worry, increased self-objectification, unrealistic body image perceptions or standards, and obsessive thinking.
  • Cyberbullying (recipient or perpetrator) has triggered lasting pain and shame.
  • Comparisons made on social media have fueled more than one eating disorder or person’s body image distress.
  • Dr. Tiktok has created many misdiagnoses and extra worries for countless teens.

Finally, according to Reuters, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against social media companies on behalf of children and teens. These lawsuits allege social media companies place profits over safety (Stempel, Bartz, and Raymond, 2023; Stempel and Raymond, 2023). The allegations include unsupervised and unlimited access to social media results in a variety of negative physical, mental, and emotional consequences—including suicide—tied to social media use. When reflecting on the whistleblower testimony exposed in 2021 (for example, Meta knew Instagram was addictive and worsened body image and proceeded to expand anyway), these lawsuits could disclose additional alarming conduct.

About 9 of 10 teens in the United States use YouTube, with about 7 in 10 teens visiting daily. And around half visit TikTok (58 percent), Snapchat (51 percent), and Instagram (47 percent) daily. Approximately one in five surveyed reported using their social media “almost constantly.” Daughters are likelier to use TikTok and Snapchat “almost constantly” than sons. This information comes from a very recent survey—late 2023—by the Pew Research Center (Anderson, Faverio, and Gottfried, 2023).

Science will continue to explore and document the connections between certain attitudes, emotions, and behaviors related to social media use. One thing is certain: More understanding will be revealed in time. But for now, probably the most important thing any parent or caregiver can do is this tip:

Remember when the adolescent was young, and you’d ask how their day or school went? What did they do during recess? Who was nice, and who wasn’t? It gave you opportunities to learn, support, and guide your kid. The playground is now online and accessible 24/7.

Figure out how to ask something similar but matching their social life nowadays. Questions might include the following. (Please translate to teen-speak by using the vernacular your adolescent will connect with.)

  • What’s your favorite platform and why?
  • How do you feel when you’re using it?
  • What’s the hardest part for you of having so much of your social life online?
  • How do you think social media helps you and hurts you?
  • If you edit your photos, why do you think you do that?

Bottom line

As you assert your social media knowledge and curiosity, of course, your teen may respond with a “stay out of my business” energy. But you can handle that. Any pushback you get for showing you care about them, their developing social life, and their mental wellness will be worth it.

An internet search for “social media literacy” can help to further add to a parent’s or caregiver’s knowledge. Also, if you need help developing questions or the courage to talk with your teen(s) about how they use social media, try connecting with friends, other parents and caregivers, or a therapist.

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This post is for informational purposes and does not provide therapy or professional advice.

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