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The Ultimate Guide to Social Media’s Effects on Teens

Embark Behavioral Health
August 18, 2021

Social media can affect teens in different ways — it can impact them emotionally, socially, physiologically, and psychologically. It can be a powerful tool that helps those who struggle to meet new people form connections or allows curious teens to explore and learn about topics of interest. It can also be a positive outlet for self-expression, creativity, support, community, and media literacy. 

But, social media accounts can also negatively influence how teens develop and maintain friendships, how they see themselves and the world, and how they could use it as a distraction to not cope with other things in their life. Social media’s effects on teens can also include negative experiences like cyberbullying, rumors, and peer pressure. These experiences can contribute to depression and anxiety in teens

Kathleen Abeln, clinical director at Calo Lake Ozarks, warns parents: 

“It seems like teenagers often feel emotionally invested in their accounts. They can become very addicted to social media where they can’t focus or do the things required of their daily life.” 

The data supports a growing compulsion amongst teens to spend more and more time online. In 2018, a Pew Research report found that nearly all teens reported owning or having access to a smartphone. With that level of access to smartphones, nearly half of the surveyed teens said they were almost always online.  

And studies show all that time spent on social media can harm teens. A 2019 study of more than 6,500 U.S. adolescents found those on social media for more than three hours a day might be at a greater risk for mental health issues. 

Should You Allow Your Teen to Use Social Media? 

Every teen and every family is going to be different. While considering social media’s effects on teens and potential negative outcomes like cyberbullying, Abeln recommends that you assess the following: 

  1. What is the social media platform, and what is the teen’s intended use? 
  1. How safe are they being, and how safe is the platform? Are there privacy controls they can implement? 
  1. Will your teen follow the boundaries you put in place? 

Before allowing them to sign up, talk with your teen about how to appropriately use social media and set boundaries and time limits around their use of the sites. 

If You Find an Existing Account 

If you find out that your teen is already on social media without your permission, Abeln recommends talking to them about it before acting. Ask them why they wanted the account and why they felt the need to keep it a secret.  
 
You’ll want to shut the account down as a consequence of them not respecting a boundary, but have the conversation first because it’s important that your teen also feels heard and understood. You can let them know that when they prove that they’re mature enough and can respect boundaries, you’ll allow them to have an account again. Let them know that social media is a privilege that they need to earn and get permission to use. 
 
For the parents who have set up accounts for their teens — either as a private digital photo album to share with faraway loved ones or as a means to reserve the teen’s handle using their name on platforms — Abeln cautions: 

“If they know they have an account when they’re younger, they’re going to want to use it, and it’s going to become a battle. If they don’t even have it, then it takes that out of the equation altogether.” 

Because of social media’s effects on teens, the longer you can wait to expose them to these platforms, the better. Hold off until they’re more mature, as they’ll be able to handle the different aspects of social situations in a much healthier way than when they’re younger. 

The Right Time for Teens to Start Using Social Media 

The later, the better, but we also understand that it can be hard to restrict use if your teen’s friends have accounts. Consider these questions as you consider the appropriate timing for your teen: 

  1. Where are they emotionally and socially with their relationships? Can they properly handle relationships? 
  1. Can they set boundaries within relationships? 
  1. Can they navigate through social media and the internet safely? 
  1. What steps would they take to protect themself? 

You’ll need to educate them about the precautions they’ll need to take when engaging online. 

Parental Controls for Social Media Use 

Abeln recommends having a lot of control over your teen’s use of social media, especially in the beginning. She adds: 

“You’ll want to teach them how to navigate social media safely, how to use it appropriately, and what the consequences can be if they don’t use it appropriately.” 

Take these three steps before your child starts using social media: 

  1. Set boundaries and limits around screen time for social media. Talk about the appropriate times to use social media. You may also want to consider putting monitoring software on your child’s device to watch how and when they’re using it. 
  1. Sit down with them when they’re on social media and explore it together. Go through the platform with them and talk through how to navigate that online space safely and appropriately.  Help them become as educated as they can be on safety and the other negative consequences of social media.  
  1. Have a plan for unintended outcomes. Consider how you’ll address misuse of social media, but also be mindful of how you’d handle other issues that may arise, such as mental health effects, bullying, or changes to their self-image. 

As they get older, you can pull back the reigns and use a lesser amount of control over their use. 

Protecting Teen Safety Online 

Various platforms do have age guidelines, such as only allowing users who are thirteen and older. Abeln recommends, at a minimum, following those guidelines. If there aren’t age restrictions, she advocates for only allowing them on age-appropriate platforms.  
 
Before they open any social media accounts, you’ll also want to have conversations around who is an appropriate follower or friend on the platform. Abeln adds: 

“Go over those guidelines with them and help them navigate those choices by creating an understanding of who is an appropriate friend versus who is inappropriate.” 

They may be using social media to make new friends and connections, so you’ll also want to educate them on what information they shouldn’t share to protect their personal safety and help them set up their privacy settings. 

Protecting Your Teen’s Self-Image Against the Effects of Social Media 

Pay attention to shifts in behavior. Is their sense of self wrapped up in social media? Are they constantly scrolling through their cell phone? Do they seem anxious to look at notifications? Has their perception of their body image changed? Are all their activities starting to revolve around social media (e.g., only going places to take selfies)? 
 
An imbalance in their life can be a sign of a growing problem. Help them take a step back from online activity and refocus on interacting face-to-face with kids and engaging in hobbies, extracurricular activities, and sports.  
 
Social media can create a false sense of reality, as users often paint an idealized version of their life and may edit or filter photos to create an unrealistic appearance. This could give your teen a perception that their friends are happier or more self-confident than they are. The more time spent with those friends in real life (or IRL, as the kids say), the less they’ll feel that way. 

You may start to see that social media is significantly impacting their self-esteem or that their sense of self is increasingly becoming wrapped up in social media activity. If that occurs, get them the help they need to maintain the boundaries that will help them refocus their self-image and rebuild it in a healthy manner. 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of clinics and programs offering premier mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of adolescent and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark is unlike any other behavioral health organization in the United States. Embark offers a full continuum and spectrum of services, a unique 25-years of specialization, a deep legacy of serving youth, and a set of internationally validated outcomes that drive treatment in real-time. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, visit embarkbh.com.