But what are the positives? What is really going on behind the screen? And, how can concerned adults support healthy teen relationships with social media?
What's to Like?
In It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, technology and society scholar danah boyd argues that many well-intentioned adults turn to their own adolescence as a reference for what is ideal, healthy and acceptable. Nostalgia for an unwired past may lead adults to cast a suspicious eye on their own children’s use of digital technology, which is so alien to their own adolescent experiences. Parents fret to see teens glued to their screens for hours, but they often don’t understand the nuances of their online activities, and may be surprised to discover that much of it can be positive.
“There are so many benefits to social media - just ask teens,” said Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, the executive director of the National Association of Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). “Connection, creativity, humor, information. It’s an amazing place to stay connected to people in your life. It’s an incredible space for artistic expression and sharing your creativity. You can laugh, be inspired, learn something new every single day. Yes, of course, there are negative aspects and risky usage but that doesn’t mean we should do away with it all.”
Only 24% of teens surveyed by the Pew Center found social media use to be negative, and a significant margin reported that social media makes them feel included (71%), confident (69%), authentic (64%) and outgoing (61%).
Predictably, the biggest plus is social connections. Socialization is a crucial component of healthy adolescent development, and social networks connect them with friends, family and like-minded peers. In the absence of in-person gatherings, social media became a lifeline for many teens to seek friendship and support, especially when stuck at home and potentially in conflict with their families.
“In general, when social media is being used for direct social connection, whether messaging a friend, keeping in touch, sharing something funny or inspiring with loved ones, it can be very beneficial,” said Nesi.
Social media is often linked to detrimental mental health issues, as in the recent bombshell report in the Wall Street Journal. But, comparatively little attention is drawn to its potential benefits to mental health. A 2021 study, for example, concluded that social support networks during the pandemic positively affected mental health and resilience.
“Resilience comes in response to conditions of adversity,” said Nesi. “Social support plays an important role in fostering it. To the extent that teens have been able to connect with friends via social media, especially if they are able to gain support around some of the challenges they’ve faced through the pandemic, social media has helped some teens gain resilience.”
Also, research has found that online networks can offer a sense of acceptance and belonging, and connect youth to supportive communities and like-minded peers. This can be particularly important for LQBTQ+ youth who may feel isolated and misunderstood in their homes and communities. Suicidal and at-risk teens have reported gaining positive support online, while sophisticated algorithms are already deployed by some networking platforms to screen social media posts and intervene when users are flagged for signs of depression, suicide risk and at-risk behaviour. Social media use has even been found to encourage physical fitness and health.
Social media also offers a rich field in which to experiment with identity, a vital aspect of adolescent development. Teens can explore different projections of themselves, learn about the world, access different points of view, learn new skills, share artistic and creative work, forward their opinions and partake in civic engagement and activism, to name a few. And, of course, social media is a popular source of entertainment. Why are Netflix binges, surfing the web, or spending a day watching sports any more acceptable than a few hours mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or TikTok?
Listen, Not Lecture
Each teen is different, so while many are well-equipped to contend with the pitfalls of social networking sites, others can be more susceptible depending on their mental health history, home environments, social context and psychological disposition.
“We know that social media impacts teens differently depending on their pre-existing strengths and vulnerabilities,” said Nesi. “For some teens, the use of social media tends to be relatively neutral or perhaps even beneficial on balance. However, for many other teens - particularly those struggling with mental health concerns - I worry that both the positive and negative effects of social media may be amplified.”
Socioeconomic status can also exacerbate the ill-effects, especially in a pandemic context. Reduced resources, comparisons with more affluent peers, cramped spaces, parents in greater danger of exposure and unstructured time can all contribute to a negative relationship with social media.
But, whether the issue is mental health, economics, or other aggravating factors, communication is key to mediating and mitigating harm.
“Teens often feel as though no one is listening to them when it comes to their social media use, and that adults, parents, teachers are coming in and making judgements about something that they do not fully understand. One of the most important things parents and educators can do is to keep the lines of communication open,” said Nesi. “Ask questions about what teens are experiencing online, what they're finding to be helpful or hurtful, how they feel that their social media use impacts their mood. And listen to their answers. If you have concerns about your child "offline" - such as experiencing difficulties with their mental health, for example - it makes sense to keep a closer eye on what they're doing online and offering increased support.”
Open, non-judgemental dialogue is not only advisable to monitor a teen’s mental and emotional state, but it also helps to better understand their online life. Many adults use social media themselves, but can be in the dark about how teens navigate their secret world of Snapstreaks and flame wars. And, teens are often reluctant to open-up about their social media use for fear of judgment and disapproval.
“As soon as schools start talking to kids about the ‘effects’ or ‘harms’ of social media, they’ve lost their audience,” said Gerrard. “They’ve lost the potential to have meaningful conversations about what kids are actually doing online because they’ve pathologized their pleasures and hobbies before the discussion has even begun.”
And what are they actually doing? One notable example are anonymous social apps, a phenomenon Gerrard has researched. Most adults are familiar with popular platforms like Facebook, TikTok and Instagram, but few have likely heard of the anonymous social apps that spread like wildfire and, just as suddenly, evaporate. Communication on these ephemeral platforms is anonymous, so there is negligible accountability and interactions can be acutely toxic. On the other hand, LGBTQ+ youth, for one, can find these apps liberating, allowing them to more freely discuss their experiences of sexuality and gender.
Parents and educators have a much greater opportunity to gain knowledge of these otherwise obscure corners of the social media universe in a communicative context.
Teens are best approached with a spirit of curiosity and inquiry: What platforms do you use? Can you show me how it works? How do you choose to use it? Do you create content, interact with others, or just passively spectate? What do you like about it? What are the downsides? How do you deal with adverse interactions?
Adults may be surprised to discover how much teens are willing to share when not put on the defensive, and how informed they are of the adverse effects of social media use.
“What I can tell you is that teens have the same concerns as parents about social media,’ said Lipkin, executive director of NAMLE. “They are aware of the dangers and the risks but they are also aware of the benefits. If you want to talk with your teens about the dangers of social media, you need to be willing to hear about the benefits too or the conversation will stop before it even gets started.”
Once fluid lines of communication are established, it is easier to negotiate boundaries and limits. Brown University professor Nesi encapsulates a healthy approach with three dictums: warmth, control and structure, all stemming from a dialogic foundation.
“Warmth refers to being kind, supportive, communicative,” said Nesi. “Talk to your child about their social media use, have fun using media together, be supportive when they come to you describing challenges with social media. Control refers to limit-setting and discipline. Make your rules about social media use clear, and explain the consequences in advance. Work with your child to set these expectations and involve them in the process. Structure involves monitoring and providing consistency. Make sure you know what your child is doing online, and help them develop healthy routines around social media use.”
Prepare, Not Protect
Developmentally, adolescence is characterized by experimentation and risk-taking which has always been a source of worry: teenage pregnancies, reckless driving, substance abuse and violent conflicts, to name a few. Social media is a new domain in which teens enact the turbulent transition to adulthood. Rather than face the challenges with over-protection and prohibition, Lipkin advises parents and educators to prepare youth for the realities of the world that awaits.
“Considering the negative and potentially dangerous effects, should youth be prohibited or significantly limited from driving?” said Lipkin. “If not, how might they be supported to mitigate any potential damage? We have systems in place to train, educate and protect them. We have accepted that driving is a skill humans need in their life. We need to have that same thinking around navigating social media and our complicated information landscape. If we are actually going to prepare youth and teens to be college and career ready, they must be media literate.”
And, it’s worth remembering that youth spend far more time on social media than driving.
Increasingly, media has become the consummate broth where we communicate, transact commerce, seek entertainment, play games, engage in political discourse and exchange information. Rather than live with media, there is an argument that youth, and many adults, live in media. It is a habitat, however, that tends to outpace our ability to understand it. Considering the pervasive role media plays in our lives, more must be done to educate and prepare youth to become knowledgeable and skilled media consumers and producers.
“Teens who have been afforded media literacy education in their classrooms and informal education opportunities understand the information ecosystem in ways that not only builds resilience but allows them to analyze and evaluate all media content - whether it’s a social media image or a news report for credibility and bias,” said Lipkin. “Understanding the way information flows, the way algorithms work, the power structures of tech companies, the persuasive techniques of ads, influencer culture, cancel culture, etc. gives teens the tools they need to make sense of the world around them.”
Gerrard also advocates for a pragmatic approach and resists the idea that young people, and especially girls, are disempowered victims of social networking technology. Digital and media literacy programs that address issues of representation, body images, power and how media is constructed can further empower youth to better contend with a complex media landscape. But, programs like these are few and far between.
A 2020 report by Media Literacy Now identified only 14 states that are advancing any type of a media literacy agenda at the legislative level, while a 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that a majority of US adults scored 40% on a basic digital knowledge quiz. These statistics open a small window into a situation where education is not keeping up with a media-saturated world.
“The United States currently does not devote any significant government effort, nor funding for media literacy education research, training, or implementation,” said Lipkin. “While there is incredible work being done in classrooms and communities around media literacy education, it is still dependent on individuals (teachers, administrators, deans, community based orgs, etc.) to ensure media literacy skills are being taught. Media literacy education has a long way to go to be the national priority it should be.”
Concerns about social media use are harbingers of what awaits over the horizon. Values, political systems, social interactions and the economy will all quickly change with the advent of artificial intelligence, big data, algorithms, the metaverse, virtual reality, 5G networks and the exponential growth in computation. As the effects of media become more complex and profound, a corresponding program of education is as crucial as it is urgent.
Model, Not Meddle
One significant way that adults can support healthy teen use of social media is to model the behaviour they want to see. Adults may want to examine their own use of mobile phones and social media before casting aspersions.
“[Teens] are watching what we do more than they are listening to what we say,” said Lipkin. “I can’t tell you how many times students tell me about the hypocrisy they notice when the parents tell the kids to get off their devices but the parents are the ones that seem obsessed.”
Modeling effective use of technology is a pillar of effective parenting in the digital age. While concerned adults may feel the temptation to surreptitiously monitor and police their children’s online activity, building trust and setting the example of healthy habits is a more viable route. Research supports that parents’ own use of digital technology (rather than their attitudes) is determinant of how their children will engage with the technology, and increased screen time by children is linked to higher screen use by their parents.
We pave a better path forward by expanding the lens to think about social media use as a universal concern. Adults and adolescents should work together to turn social media minuses into pluses with open minds, fluid dialogue, improved education and by modeling good habits.