Social media is no longer a new phenomenon, but the proliferation of smartphones among children and teens and the rise of teen-dominated social media sites have turned it into a growing concern. I remember joining MySpace when I was a teenager and using it as a way to connect with friends and occasionally meet new people. At the time, I didn’t consider that the person on the other end might be lying about who they are or how my time on social media might affect me.
TikTok, which has quickly become one of the dominant social media platforms, is specifically focused on video sharing and is particularly popular among Gen Z—the generation of those born after 1996. In fact, at least 60% of TikTok users are GenZers. TikTok’s user agreement states that a person must be at least 13 years old to sign up for an account.
Aside from the connection and sense of community that many teenagers claim they feel on apps like TikTok, part of the appeal is the type of seemingly endless entertainment it offers. Short videos aimed at a teen audience provide instant gratification, and they stay on for much longer.
We’ve all likely heard the phrase “the internet is forever,” meaning that what you share online can never truly be deleted. If you’re the parent of a teenager, the reality of what it means to post information online has likely made you wonder what your teen is really sharing. I may not yet have a teenager on my hands, but as a middle school teacher and a parent whose children will one day become teens, I’ve often wondered what impact social media has on teenagers’ health and how we can protect them from the dangers.
Impact of social media use on teens
The impact social media has on teenagers is extremely concerning, especially since teens have become addicted to social media apps. Many teenagers argue for the benefits of social media, and they may not be completely missing the mark. The truth is that social media isn’t all bad, and it may be okay for your teen to use it if boundaries are set.
However, you’ll have to set those boundaries because most teens can’t self-regulate in that way. Even as adults, we struggle with setting those boundaries for ourselves.
Many teens would claim that one of the main benefits of social media is the connection they can make with other teens. There are many teenagers who feel isolated at school or in their social groups, but on social media, they can connect with others who share similar interests.
However, online connections come with risks. Children who overuse social media can also gradually lose the ability to communicate and connect with other people in person. Sometimes, it’s impossible to truly know who your child is communicating with, especially those who lead secret digital lives. Teens now have “burner” phones or share passwords with their friends to post for them when their privileges are taken away.
How social media affects the mental health of teenagers
Whether it stems from low self-esteem when comparing themselves to others or negative comments and interactions with fellow teenagers, there are many ways social media can negatively impact the mental health of its users.
Here are some of the main concerns surrounding social media usage:
- Cyberbullying: While bullying is a significant concern for parents of teenagers in general, cyberbullying is especially troubling because it may often go unseen. Studies have shown that cyberbullying can be exceptionally vicious in comparison to other forms of bullying since communicating with others online lacks the personal nature of a face-to-face connection. Cyberbullies don’t necessarily see the effects of their actions, a factor that may deter someone from bullying repeatedly.
- Addiction: Much like many other types of addictions, internet addiction is a concern among the parents of teenagers. A study showed teenagers between the ages of 15 and 16 had the highest levels of internet addiction. Not only can this addiction affect a teenager’s mental health, but it will also make it difficult for them to break away from social media despite the negative effects.
- Poor academic performance: Lack of boundaries, moderation, or enforceable rules for a teenager’s online presence can affect other areas of their life, including their performance in school. The link between poor academic results and social media usage has been attributed to lack of moderation and appropriate amounts of study time, as well as the sleep disturbance social media usage may cause. It’s not only teenagers that seem to be affected by this, but college students as well.
What are teens sharing online?
Teenagers often use social media for self-expression, which can be a healthy outlet for them. But no matter what they’re using social media for, it still raises the question of what exactly teenagers are sharing. A study by the Pew Research Center helps to break this down.
The top 3 topics teens admitted to posting about on social media were accomplishments, family, and their emotions and feelings. The range of topics varies wildly depending on age and gender.
Although many teens have the opportunity to share openly about their lives, they choose not to. About 45% of the teenagers participating in the study said they often or sometimes post selfies to social media, and about 51% rarely or never do. A similar proportion of teens shared other personal details, such as videos they recorded or updates on their location.
Despite the number of teens who may be conservative in their sharing, teenagers, in general, are sharing more than they have in the past. While many upload content such as photos and videos of themselves, they’re also sharing personal information in the form of phone numbers and birth dates. Not only does this put them at risk of unwelcome attention but also of identity theft. With teenagers unlikely to set boundaries for themselves, how can we protect our teens from sharing too much online, especially when we parents are also prone to sharenting?
How to help your teen be safe online
Whether you’ve been monitoring your teenager’s online activity or are just now realizing you’re not sure what they’re actually sharing online, it’s never too late to find ways to keep them safe. Discussing this topic with your teen may be uncomfortable at first, but it’s necessary if you really want to keep them from putting themselves in a bad situation.
Here are some ways to help keep your teenager safe on social media:
1. Communicate clearly and frequently
Although it’s important to have an initial talk about internet safety before your teen joins any social media site, don’t just stop there. Discuss with your child the importance of online safety and healthy media use on a regular basis.
Check in with them frequently to see how they’re navigating the online world. If you keep communication open from the beginning, your teen may be more likely to share with you when something seems off.
2. Set boundaries
The truth is that most teenagers aren’t going to set boundaries and ground rules for themselves. Even if you have an extremely responsible teenager, there are still many ways they can be unsafe online without meaning to.
As the parent, it will be your responsibility to set ground rules for what is okay and what isn’t, whether that has to do with what sites are acceptable or who they’re allowed to be friends with online. It’s also important to set boundaries for how often social media is used. It can quickly become an addiction if those boundaries aren’t enforced.
3. Get involved
Your teen may not want you to be involved in their social media or know what they’re doing online, but in order to hold them accountable and keep them safe, your involvement is crucial.
This might look like you being their friend on social media to see what they post. If you choose to go this route, be aware you may still need to dive deeper into their social media accounts because many apps allow you to restrict specific users from seeing what you post. Getting involved may also mean having your teen show you their social media after they use it.
4. Know what to look out for
Unhealthy social media use can cause many issues, so even if you’re monitoring your teen’s internet usage, it’s important to know what warning signs to look out for. Keeping your teen safe online is more than just knowing what they’re posting. It also includes knowing how their internet and social media usage is affecting them.
Keep an eye out for these signs indicating that your teen may need help:
- Tendencies related to self-harm or negative self-talk
- Hiding their social media or phone from you
- Avoiding spending time with friends or classmates
- Reacting emotionally or irrationally after spending time on social media
- Creating multiple social media accounts or accounts under different names
Helping your teen navigate social media
Parenting a teenager in today’s world is anything but easy. It can be scary thinking about all they are exposed to, both online and in real life. You don’t have to know everything about social media in order to have that technology talk or teach them well—you are the best person for the job. The lessons they’ll learn from you about how to navigate social media safely will stick with them for the rest of their lives.