Teens and Social Media: Risks and Rewards

Brooks Michael's picture
By Brooks Michael on August 22, 2017

Does social media ever kind of depress you? Don’t get me wrong. It is a wonderful way to stay in contact with friends and loved ones, raise awareness for important social issues and it can also serve as a platform for self-expression, but it also has downsides, especially when it comes to teens and self-image.   

Whereas prior generations compared themselves to Hollywood standards and airbrushed magazine photos in the privacy of their bedrooms, this generation of teens has every photo, word and action publicly scrutinized by friends and strangers who are free with their criticism—and who have more popular online profiles that are sometimes filtered and photoshopped.

According to a recent report by the Royal Society for Public Health, social media has been described as more addictive than alcohol and cigarettes and the use of social media is linked to increased rates of anxiety, depression and poor sleep.

The report, which surveyed about 1,500 respondents aged 14 to 24, found that YouTube had the most positive impact due to its ability to show other people’s health experiences, promoting awareness and understanding, while Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter all had a negative impact on young people's mental health.

In fact, Instagram topped the list in terms of the most negative impact, especially for young women. Other findings included:

  • Half of those surveyed said that Instagram and Facebook increased their feelings of anxiety
  • Seven out of 10 noted that Instagram made them feel worse about their body image
  • Two out of three said that Facebook made cyber-bullying worse

But the platform was not the only factor affecting teens. Those who spent more than two hours per day on social media sites were more likely to report poor mental health and psychological distress.

However, the report wasn’t all bad. Respondents also noted that they feel a sense of community and emotional support among their online peers.

So, what do we need to do to help our kids navigate the good and bad parts of social media? Instead of demonizing social media, talk to your child about oversharing, safety and how to connect online in a healthy way.

Step 1: Lay out your expectations for online behavior.
The anonymous nature of social media, along with its barometer of likes and comments, can often cause teens to post things that are not in line with their true core values, so talk to your child about the kinds of things they should and should not share online.

Even though it might not seem like it at times, you still have the biggest influence in helping your teen determine what is appropriate and inappropriate online.

Step 2: Supervise.
Make sure that you are “friends” with your child on all of their social media channels and keep an eye on who their friends and followers are as well. There are apps that allow you to monitor your teen's activity online, but using them does run the risk of making your teen feel like you don’t trust them.

It is also important to use the privacy settings on each account, and don’t forget to check them regularly since settings are frequently updated and changed on most sites.

Step 3: Recognize signs of cyberbullying.
Watch for changes in behavior. For example, if your child suddenly stops using the computer or their phone it may be a sign they are being bullied online. Check out some other signs here.

Step 4: Take a break.
Let your kids know that it is ok to set their phones down and walk away from the constant contact of social media, especially when they are feeling stressed about it! I had to tell me own son this.

When I was growing up if something was happening it was put on hold when we left school until the next day, but in today's world our kids never get a break.

Step 5: Set limits.
Set time limits on daily use and establish technology-free zones in the house. These limits go for parents as well, which takes us to our next step.

Step 6: Be a role model.
First, you have to put down your phone. If you are constantly looking at your phone, your teen will take their cues from you and do the same. This is especially important when you are in the car since that can be a good time to talk about what is going on in your teen’s life.

Step 7: Get kids involved in things that are offline.
Get your child involved in something that can help give them confidence. If it is an activity that involves spending time with others and interacting with peers face-to-face (something that social media does not provide), that is even better.

Having a healthy body image and self-esteem is all about helping kids focus on what they can do, instead of how they look or what they have. This will help them be happier and better prepared to be successful as they take on challenges in real life.

Brooks Michael is an adolescent health educator for Carilion Clinic’s Adolescent and Student Health Services. Learn more about Brooks and her work with teens.