Keeping your teenager out of the social media world is impossible. Whether we like it or not, our kids are growing up in a digital era — and although that creates major opportunities, it also comes with some pretty big risks. We saw this firsthand when we asked a group of tweens and teens to give up their phones and social media for a week; it was as though we'd asked them to part with a limb.
Even Barack Obama agreed that the internet can be both a "blessing and a curse" during an interview with Prince Harry aired as a BBC podcast on December 27. "On the internet, everything is simplified," he said. "And when you meet people face-to-face, it turns out they're complicated. There may be somebody who you think is diametrically opposed to you when it comes to their political views, but you root for the same sports team." Obama may have been talking about complex political issues, but his words apply just as much to teenagers and social media.
A recent study of more than 10,000 sixth- to 12-grade girls carried out by nonprofit organization Ruling Our Experiences found that high school girls spend an average of six hours a day on social media. And the effect of too much logged-on time is clear. The study found kids who spend eight hours or more on technology per day are five times more likely to be sad or depressed. Adding to the pressure is that 2 out of 3 high school girls report being asked to send a revealing photo to another person, and most of them report that most students their age send sexually explicit texts and photos to each other.
"The more typical and sometimes subtle challenges of adolescence are even more amplified with social media and can be more damaging to a girl’s sense of self," says Dr. Lisa Hinkelman, a licensed counselor, founder of Ruling Our Experiences and author of Girls Without Limits: Helping Girls Achieve Healthy Relationships, Academic Success and Interpersonal Strength. "During the teen years, girls experience drops in confidence and self-esteem, have difficulty navigating friendships and relationships and often come to dislike their body and appearance. These inherent insecurities of adolescence are exacerbated with the overlay of social media, with the constant comparison of self to others. When every aspect of a girl’s life is on display to be viewed, dissected and judged, her self-concept can be negatively impacted and her decision-making altered to gain the approval — the likes — of her peers."
The Ruling Our Experiences study put the spotlight on girls, and it's worth noting there's a marked gender divide when it comes to social media use and its repercussions. Another study, carried out by Common Sense Media, found that girls straight-up use social media more than boys and are also more likely to experience negative consequences. Half the girls polled admitted that content posted online often makes them worry about their appearance or social status, while just a quarter of the boys said the same. An earlier study from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project came to similar conclusions: A third of 12- to 13-year-old girls who used social media believed their peers were mostly unkind to each other online, while only 9 percent of the boys agreed.
Of course, these differences don't mean we shouldn't have concerns about boys and the impact of digital overload or online bullying. In fact, other studies have shown that boys and girls can be equally damaged by social media.
With all these statistics — plus the look of horror on a kid's face when they're separated from their digital device — it's no wonder parents are concerned about their kids' online lives. So why aren't we doing more about it? The Ruling Our Experiences study found that 60 percent of girls report that their parents "rarely or never" monitor their use of technology. Experts recognize it can be difficult to know how to help our teens cope with the pressures of social media, but there are red flags we can look out for that may indicate it's time to intervene.
According to Tom Kersting, licensed psychotherapist, family counselor, author and educator, the most common warning signs of an unhealthy relationship with social media include: sleep deprivation, anxiety and/or depression, lack of interest in anything not screen-related, constant fighting and arguing about screen time and believing you can’t live without your devices.
Hinkelman adds that signs of digital distress include withdrawal from activities a teen typically enjoyed, changes in eating or sleeping, increased levels of sadness or crying and persistent anxiousness and isolation. "Social isolation is a key element of depression, and excessive use of technology can equate to less in-person connections with others," she says.
It's also important for parents to recognize just how important social media is to this age group. Yes, Snapchat does matter. "When we minimize the importance that social media plays in the lives of girls, we effectively make ourselves less relevant and more out of touch," says Hinkelman. "However, right now, the strategies that we see many parents implementing are to tell girls to stay off of social media, to limit access to their phones and to say unhelpful things like, 'If it is making you that upset, just put it away' or 'Why do you even try to be friends with those girls if they are so mean?'"
A more productive approach is to help kids develop effective and supportive relationships both via technology and IRL. We need to teach our teens how to trust their intuition, set boundaries, value their own voice and opinion and deal with pressure and coercion. "These are the skills they need for success in life," says Hinkelman.
That said, if you have concerns your teen is being bullied online, you need to pull out all the stops, says Kersting. "Keep your teen off social media, period," he says. That means don't let your teen use technology in their bedroom, have mandatory family conversation every night, and don't let your teen go to school with their phone until the problem has been resolved. The most important thing is for teens to feel — and be — safe, online and in the real world alike.
Parents can get more advice on helping their teens stay safe online at ConnectSafely.