The effects of social media on youth
and strategies you can employ
By Jack Merenda
Digital technology, including cell phones, tablets, computers, and the web-based world to which they provide access, occupy a unique position in the collective mind. We love our phones! In fact, 71% of people sleep with or next to their cell phones (Burke, 2015). However, there is also a lot of fear that surrounds the wave of technological advances that has brought the vastness of the World Wide Web to the tips of our fingers—and into the hands of our children.
Positive Effects of Social Media
In pursuit of a balanced conversation, it must be acknowledged that there are some undeniable benefits that the digital revolution has brought to the lives of children and teens. The American Academy of Pediatrics (2016) published a report stating that technology provides new methods for teaching and for self-driven learning through apps, programs, and classroom tools. Social media can also improve young people's access to other people's experiences of health as well as expert health information. Hurley (2018) pointed out that teens who struggle with social skills or social anxiety may benefit from connections they make on social media. The American Academy of Pediatrics (2016) confirmed these potential positive effects, stating that social media usage can lead to increased exposure to new ideas and knowledge acquisition and increased opportunities for social contact and support. Video games and phone applications can provide valuable cognitive development opportunities for kids and teenagers. It is also interesting to note that an industry of competitive gaming has now arisen, providing young people with a career avenue—with salaried players and playoffs.
Negative Effects of Social Media
However, the pervasive use of social media is not ubiquitously positive. The following areas of human functioning may suffer from excessive, prolonged, or addictive use of social media.
The technology-saturated youth of today may deal with decreased amount and quality of sleep due to social media (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016). And, there is a correlation between social media use and obesity (Hurley, 2018).
Social media may interfere with our cognitive efficiency. Nine out of ten college students said they texted while in class (Turkle, 2015). The "myth of multitasking" asserts that multitasking provides a neurochemical high, making us think we're performing better when we are actually performing worse. There are also concerns, due to the fact that the adolescent brain is still developing through the teen years.
Phone usage in social settings is associated with isolating behaviors and with decreased quality of relationships; (Chotpitayasunondh & Douglas, 2018). This has been described as prioritizing our devices at the expense of humans (Turkle, 2015). A "social media following" creates the illusion of companionship (Turkle, 2011), allowing teens to maintain a safe, controlled distance from peers. These trends can result in adolescents getting less social practice with peers (Ehmke, 2018).
Cyberbullying is a chronic problem, with 7 in 10 young people saying they have experienced it (Child Mind Institute, 2017). It is easier to be cruel through an indirect means, than to someone's face. Many parents also worry about their children engaging in inappropriate use of social media through sexting.
Images have a life of their own, and minors sending nude photographs can result in criminal record for them or others, and leads to potential consequences in the real world.
A study of teenagers found that social media usage may contribute to depression in teens when they already felt isolated and experienced negative thoughts about themselves (Twenge, 2017). But others have said that social media fostered connection and creativity (Twenge, 2017). This is important for parents to be aware of, as adolescents who are already struggling are more likely than more stable teens to view social media as carrying substantial weight.
Shafer (2017) noted that the omnipresence of social interactions resulting from social media, may increases a typical teen's social concerns by creating a constantly accessible (and intrusive) social world.
One major concern regarding technology use in young people is that they will become dependent on it, either biochemically or behaviorally (Jensen & Nuutt, 2015). For example, the American Psychiatric Association (2013) defines Internet Gaming Disorder by the following characteristics that parents can watch for in their child:
- Preoccupation or obsession with internet games
- Withdrawal symptoms when not playing internet games
- A build-up of tolerance - more time needs to be spent playing the games
- The person has tried to stop or curb playing internet games, but has failed to do so
- The person has had a loss of interest in other life activities, such as hobbies
- A person has had continued overuse of internet games even with the knowledge of how much they impact a person's life
- The person lied to others about his or her Internet game usage
- The person uses internet games to relieve anxiety or guilt - it's a way to escape
- The person has lost or put at risk, an opportunity or relationship, because of internet games.
Strategies for Parents
Problems With Attention or Behavior
To combat the dangers of the myth of multitasking, help children learn to mono-task with strategies like the Pomodoro Technique (Homayoun, 2018): Start a 25-minute timer while working and then take a five minute break. Repeat four times, and then take a longer break.
Problems with Self-Image
For teens that struggle with comparing themselves to others in social media, Weinstein suggests several specific conversations that parents can have with their children about social media to help them develop a critical eye when viewing social media.
- First, teens often look at others' social media feeds and assume that their peers have "perfect" lives. Encourage them to look back over their own posts and look for evidence of their own imperfect lives. Coach them to think about the things that they've left out of their presentation fo themselves on social media, and consider that others probably do the same.
- Second, demonstrate how to intentionally and wisely choose uplifting content in their feeds. Encourage teens to choose social media pages and friends to follow carefully
- Lastly, draw your teen's attention to the assumptions that social media makes about others and themselves, and encourage them to replace those assumptions with questions. Ask them to think critically about a post, or consider why they follow a page
Problems with Well-Being
Some teens may suffer from anxiety or depression that may be related to their phones or their social media. Below are some strategies to help teens manage this anxiety (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016; Child Mind Institute, 2017, Kamenetz, 2018):
- First, determine where the anxiety may be coming from. Validate the source of stress. Do not reactively remove the phone from your teen, as it won't fix the problem but could isolate them and increase stress.
- Work with your family to set screen-free times; for example, before bed, at the dinner table, Saturday mornings, etc.
Model the wise use of technology and good social media boundaries for your child. Remember that when you turn your attention to your own phone or social media, you might miss out on the chance to engage with your child. Make sure that your kids don't have to compete for your attention with a screen.
- Help your teen set their expectations with social media and build the life skill of interacting through technology.
Family Media Use Plan Tool
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) created the Family Media Use Plan tool, an evidence-based tool that helps families create a media plan that is customized to the members, lifestyle, goals of their family (2016). You are prompted to enter the ages of your children, and then walked through making decisions about guidelines that range from places and times that screens are not used, digital manners, types of content, balancing offline activity with online activity, and more.
Some recommendations are to avoid screen time in the following situations:
- While walking across the street
- While doing homework
- While at school
- While in the car, except for long trips
- Family time
- Meal times - Do not watch TV or use mobile devices at meal times.
- Bed time - Using a mobile device or watching TV before bed can interfere with a child's sleep.
The Family Media Use Plan also provides constructive suggestions that are age appropriate depending on your children. Examples of positive, connective internet activity include:
- Use media to connect to others, e.g., video chatting with out-of-town relatives.
- Playing creative or learning apps, coding, making movies, or enhancing personal or school projects
- Watching age appropriate and educational shows & videos.
- "Co-playing" (playing games together) and co-viewing (watching videos together) to encourage memory making together and provide guidance for young children as they encounter content.
The Family Media Use Plan is also unique in that it addresses the concept of "digital citizenship," or safe, wise, and valuable behavior online. The plan includes guidelines like respecting privacy, being safe, sticking up for people, and reporting anything wrong to an adult. A very effective strategy to share with your children and teens is not to share anything online that they wouldn't be comfortable with the entire world, including their grandmother, reading!
Donna Wick, a clinical psychologist, advises against overseeing a child's text messages or taking their phone away unless you have cause for a concern. Encourage them to think before they act. It is their job to make good decisions but, it is your role to help them avoid mistakes (Child Mind Institute, n.d.).
A well-published neurologist Dr. Frances Jensen wrote these wise words:
"Teenagers are the world's leading authorities on technology, and while they are the savviest of users, they are also the most vulnerable" (Jensen & Nutt, 2015). Let us always keep that in mind.
The strategies above (and many others) will help us build the skills of our teenagers and children to interact with technology more effectively and safely.
*Special acknowledgment to: Professional Development Resources course entitled Effects of Digital Media on Adolescents, and prolific social media user, Claire Merenda.
- Jensen & Nuutt (2015), The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults
- Homayoun (2018), Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World
- Anya Kamenetz (2018), The Art of Screen Time: How your family can balance digital media & real life
- The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Family Media Use Plan tool, HealthyChildren.orq
- The Child Mind Institute guidelines for Teens and Tweens
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). (2016). Media use in school-aged children and adolescent
[Policy statement]. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/138/5/ e20162592
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author. http://dx.doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Burke, T. (2015, June 29). Perpetually Plugged In: America's Smartphone Obsession Continues as Many Admit to Constant Connectivity. Bank of America Newsroom. Retrieved from https://newsroom.bankofamerica.com/press-releases/consumer-banking/perpetually-pluggedamericas-smartphone-obsession-continues-many
Child and Mind Institute (2017). Living in technicolor: Teen behavior and the brain. 2017 Childress' Mental Health Report. Retrieved from https://childmind.org/report/2017-childrens-mental-health-reportniving-technicolor-teen-behavior-brain/
Ehmke, R. (2018). Media guidelines for kids of all ages: Tips for making sure that your children's screen time is healthy. Child Mind Institute, Inc. Retrieved from: https://childmind.org/article/ media-guidelines-for-kids-of-all-ages/
Ehmke, R. (2018). How using social media affects teenagers: Experts say kids are growing up with more anxiety and less self-esteem. Child Mind Institute, Inc. Retrieved from: https:// childmind.org/article/how-using-social-media- affects-teenagers/
Homayoun, A. (2018). Social media wellness: Helping tweens and teens thrive in an unbalanced digital world. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a SAGE company.
Hurley, K. (2018). Social media and teens: How does social media affect teenagers' mental health. Retrieved from https://www.psycom.net/social-media-teen-mental-health
Jensen, F. E. & Nutt, A. E. (2015). The teenage brain: A neuroscientist's survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults. New York, NY: Harper/Harper Collins.
Kamenetz, A. (2018). The art of screen time: How your family can balance digital media and real life. New York, NY: Public Affairs/Hachette Book Group.
Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other.New York, NY: Basic Books.
Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. New York: Penguin Press.
Twenge, J. M. (2017). iGen: Why today's super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy - and completely unprepared for adulthood—and what that means for the rest of us. New York: Atria Books.
Weinstein, E. (2017). Adolescents' differential responses to social media browsing: Exploring causes and consequences for intervention. Computers in Human Behavior (76), 396-405. https:// doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.07.038