Social Media: The hidden impacts on teens

When talking with parents, I often get questions about social media. How much is too much? What boundaries should I set? Am I just being overly concerned? With so much technology and so many opinions, these questions can be difficult to answer. Earlier this year, BBC Future posted an article that highlights several studies that explore the impacts of social media on mental health. The consensus of the article is that it can affect people differently. Some aspects of social media may benefit us. However, if your teen is isolated, the risk of being negatively affected by social media is increased.

Here are two considerations for parents of teens about social media use.

Practicing Communication

Social media allows us to communicate easily and frequently. But, we’re not actually in the physical presence of the people we’re communicating with. That’s the convenient part. The cost of this convenience is that we increase the chances of misinterpretations. These misinterpretations happen because a large percentage of what we communicate is conveyed through vocal tone, facial features, and body posture.  Communicating via social media can also cause us to miss out on building comfort with communicating in the presence of others. The convenience of communicating using social media is enticing, but it comes with the hidden cost of shifting our comfort away from face-to-face communication.

Distorted Reality

Social media sites learn about our preferences by studying our activity. What we see on these sites is influenced by computer algorithms that learn what we like and then anticipate what else we might like. This can be useful but also potentially harmful. Let’s say you spend time looking at pictures of friends in exciting social situations. As time goes on, you’re likely going to see more pictures and posts where everyone seems to be spending time with friends. You might find yourself jumping to a false conclusion, like, “everyone is spending time with friends but me.” It’s not hard to see how our mind can create a reality where we feel more alone, left out, and disconnected.

So how can parents help their teens avoid these pitfalls?

Social media consumption is like eating donuts. Eat one donut and you’ll probably enjoy it. Eat too many donuts and you’ll get a stomach ache. Most of us have been there. Too much social media or harmful engagement with social media can have similar negative effects. Encourage your teens to be aware of how they’re feeling while using social media. For example, if you realize you’re beginning to feel lonely when you scroll through Facebook or Instagram pictures, then put down the computer or phone. Try an alternative behavior that’s more helpful. Call a friend, write in a gratitude journal, or go for a walk. This type of self-evaluation can increase our awareness of when it’s ok to engage with social media and when it might be harmful.

As parents, role modeling positive behavior and humility around our own goals for change can send a powerful message to our teens. Let’s say you decide to create limits for yourself on the amount of time you spend in front of a screen. Consider making it a goal to maintain this limit and share your goal with the rest of your family. Consider encouraging your kids and spouse to keep you accountable to your commitment. Setting this goal communicates that healthy limits with technology are important for everyone in the family. It also communicates that even as parents, we’re not perfect. And that’s ok. We don’t expect perfection, and even parents have room to grow.

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