Reducing the Risk of Social Media for Teens

Written by: Anne Marie Albano, Ph.D., ABPP and Kate McKnight, Ph.D.

It’s never been easy to raise a teen. But with the rise of social media, parents, healthcare providers, and educators are facing new challenges when it comes to helping teens thrive—especially because it’s a part of life that many of them didn’t have to contend with during their own adolescent years. Millennials, Gen Z and Generation Alpha have a digital wisdom that creates an adept, innate comfort with technology from a young age. Parents raising these generations can feel like they’re stumbling through this aspect of parenting, trying to speak a foreign language their teenager is fluent in.   

Many parents and fellow providers that we talk with already understand the well-documented negative effects of social media. Nearly half of teens today say they use the Internet “almost constantly.” Research has shown that all that time spent on social media has led to disruptive sleep that increases symptoms of insomnia and depression, and that spending more than three hours per day on social media may put teens at a heightened risk for mental health problems. Additionally, hiding behind a screen makes it easier for cyberbullies and predators to lurk and insult with little or no consequence, leading to terrifying scenarios for teens worldwide. 

Despite those negative effects, the allure of social media remains real for teens. The human brain doesn’t fully develop until we’re into our 20s, and some of the last areas to develop are our brain’s “brakes,” the messages that help us walk away from something that’s not serving us or stop us from reacting impulsively to emotional stimuli. At the same time, our cravings for “emotional rewards” are heightened starting in the early teen years. This means getting a “Like” on TikTok can make teens light up with a powerful, addictive positivity that wouldn’t be so acutely felt later in life. 

That lack of emotional maturity isn’t always obvious to both parents and providers. As adults, we see a rapidly growing teen who can understand situations on an intellectual level, and falsely assume they can also emotionally handle what’s being thrown at them. But the gap between cognitive and emotional ability is at its widest in the teen years—often, teens technically have the logic to make healthy choices but are more prone to take risks online because emotions or social factors are driving their decisions.  

Understanding the Draw 

So how can parents and providers strike that delicate balance of fostering independence in a teen while also doing their best to mitigate the risks of too much social media? We believe the first step is to understand what makes social media so compelling for teens:  

  • Accessibility: Social media has opened incredible opportunities for friendships and connections between teens who may have previously felt painfully isolated. Some can connect with fans of niche hobbies, share advice to battle similar medical issues or disabilities, or receive resources about a desired career path. The pandemic only intensified this need for community. The communication available via social media was better than total isolation from the outside world, and it can be difficult for many teens to break out of the scrolling and texting habits they formed when it was the only way to connect.
  • Ability to be “present”: For many reasons, including insecurity, ability, and access, many teens find it easier to be part of the outside world from behind a screen. They may be able to see a sporting event, feel like they’ve been to a concert, or have a heart-to-heart with a friend over text, all without having to engage in a face-to-face interaction that may put them on guard. In this way, they can experience an event or be part of a community without having to risk feeling vulnerable, anxious or insecure.
  • Inclusion and Advocacy: Social media can go beyond the teen brain’s thirst for the thrill of a ‘like.’ Many healthy and supportive communities have formed online, particularly for teens that may lack support in their own homes or schools. Support from fellow members of the LGBTQIA+ community or body positivity activists, for instance, can help show marginalized teens that there is a larger world that accepts them for who they are. BIPOC students can create social media handles where they can discuss the racism they’ve experienced without fear of retaliation from their school or community. Having platforms where they can share their opinions and emotions about social, racial and political issues can feel empowering to teenagers who might not always have agency to evoke the changes they want to see in the world around them.

Knowing the Downsides

While there are true benefits to having wider access to the world around you, social media also causes significant challenges and stressors for teenagers.  

Take accessibility, for instance. Increased access to friends and their day-to-day activities can feel exciting, but it can also lead to feelings of insecurity, anxiety and jealousy. Consider a breakup, be it the loss of a friend or a romantic partner. Heartbreak is as old as time, but it’s only recently that someone experiencing it has the ability to watch constant, real-time updates of their exes or former friends filtered through the glossy lens of social media, looking fantastic with a new fling or heading to a party they weren’t invited to.  

Breakup adages like “out of sight, out of mind” become less helpful when being truly out of sight seems impossible. Even teenagers with strong coping skills and social supports can have a difficult time dealing with the onslaught of this imagery.  

And yes, it is nice to experience events online that you might not be able to see in-peron. But just because teens have watched or texted something doesn’t mean they’re truly present, especially when it becomes the de facto way they engage with others. A teenager may settle for watching comedian improv clips online, for instance, rather than joining the school’s improv group and actually trying it out on stage. Or, teenagers may stick to a script they find on social media for texting a friend about a dispute, instead of having an (albeit difficult) face-to-face conversation with a friend. In-person conversations allow for a more nuanced understanding of the problem, provide important non-verbal cues, and can lead to an effective resolution that gives both teens more confidence to handle difficult conversations in the future. The habit of connecting over DMs without engaging in verbal discourse can hinder the development that teens need to thrive as independent adults.  

And yes, social media can increase feelings of inclusion and incentivize teenagers to advocate for their beliefs. However, uncurated, it also opens a window to information that can create or intensify anxiety and insecurities. A quick scroll might show filtered and photoshopped bodies can exacerbate a teen’s poor body image. Content can slip past social media guidelines and, either explicitly or subtly, pass along harmful info like tips on accelerating an eating disorder or perpetuating dangerous body stereotypes. Some teenagers might find a community that supports their sense of self while others might stumble upon a less supportive, or even harmful, group. Videos sent through seemingly haphazard algorithms can highlight the terror of living in a world with a climate crisis, the threat of deportations, gun violence, and racial injustice. While no one is arguing that teenagers should be kept from some of life’s realities, much of the content on social media is fear mongering. Often, it does not offer a viable solution to address these issues and leaves teenagers feeling hopeless instead of activated.  

Helpful Tips for Helping a Teen Thrive in the Age of Social Media  

There are several ways you can help the teen in your life establish a healthy relationship with social media. Here are the tips we always discuss with parents when discussing how to navigate their relationship with screens: 

Make a technology agreement from the beginning. Right from the onset of a kid receiving a phone or opening a social media account, open the conversation about what kind of privacy and control they’ll have with it. Give them your reasoning behind your rules so they can understand where you’re coming from and believe you’re setting them with intention rather than simply to limit or restrict them. 

Keep that communication going. Let kids know that conversation about social media rules is open to evolving as they grow. This is also a great chance to ask them about what they want to get out of social media, and the image they want to present to the world (including potential employers, family members, strangers, etc.). It may help them think a little more critically about the pros and cons of social media, and show that you’re willing to have a non-judgmental, two-sided conversation about it going forward.  

Schedule activities that limit the time spent on social media. Since studies have found a link between excess time spent on social media and the heightened risk for mental health problems, it can be smart to set guidelines about how long teens spend on their devices. But rather than ban them outright, take an active role in limiting that time by working with a teen to schedule activities they like that don’t have to involve social media. Even something simple like a device-free family walk around the neighborhood can be a reminder that they can survive a short unplugging. 

Model good behavior. Limiting social media time won’t work if you’re also always turning to it. There are some great household rules for social media, like turning phones off an hour before bed, or no devices during mealtimes. Establish trust with your teen by also holding yourself accountable to those rules. 

Don’t blame your kid for another kid’s post. If you notice someone connected to your teen has posted or messaged them something upsetting, don’t immediately go on the attack, even if it’s publicly on their page. Approach them from a problem-solving perspective—do they agree with the content posted? Why or why not? What would be a smart way to make sure that content doesn’t appear associated with them again? Do they feel threatened by this person, and would they like you to take action? Rather than feel judged, defensive, or misunderstood, they’ll know you’re willing to hear them out and that you trust them to learn and grow from the experience. 

Let your teen know the resources available to them (instead of trying to stay smarter than them). We see many parents who believe they can stay one step ahead of teens when it comes to social media. This unfortunately is not the case—determined teens will use savvy methods like incognito social media accounts if you strenuously dictate their usage or cross privacy boundaries. Instead of cracking down, let them know that if there’s an issue they feel uncomfortable discussing with you, you’ll always help them access resources like their healthcare providers, a mentor, a therapist, or a school counselor.  

Find ways social media can enhance your lives together. A lot of parents and providers understandably think of social media in the same way they might think of drugs or alcohol—you want to educate teens about the risks associated with these substances, and give them pathways to make smart decisions that mitigate those risks. This is a great starting point. But remember that social media can also be far more rewarding than the consumption of risky substances. Think of the ways you can help the teen in your life enhance their life with the aid of social media. Maybe you offer to cook a recipe they’ve seen all over Instagram together, or learn the silly moves of a Tik Tok dance. Every night at dinner, you ask them to share a helpful piece of advice they learned that day via social media, or carve out time to discover videos from a performer you both love.  

Watching for Signs of Concern 

Since the compelling and positive facets of social media can quickly tumble into negative territory, it’s important to be consistently mindful of a teen’s ongoing relationship with their various social media platforms. While all teens are different and behaviors can fluctuate, there are a few signs that parents and educators can watch out while still respecting their privacy:  

  • Increased irritability or standoffishness when you mention social media, or try to enforce rules regarding device time
  • Lack of interest in in-person activities that used to excite them
  • Starting to conduct social media time in secretive places like the bathroom or a closet, rather than openly scrolling through their feeds near you
  • Trying to get extra savvy about having secret social media accounts
  • Decreased interest in typical rituals that address their physical or emotional needs 
  • Having a tougher time interacting with people in person

In these cases, start with the tips listed above. Initiate conversations with your teens by asking non-judgmental, open-ended questions about what’s happening in their lives and any changes they wish they could make. You can let these conversations flow organically and give space for hearing a different opinion than yours. Don’t feel that everything needs to be resolved in one conversation.  

Place and timing can often make a big difference. If the teen or parent is stressed or under time pressure, the conversation can easily go awry. And some settings automatically nudge the conversation into calmer territory. For instance, many teenagers share more easily when driving in a car with their parents. The lack of face-to-face discussion feels less intimidating. Some teenagers are more prone to sharing at night before bed once they’ve had some time to unhook from their screens.  

It can be very helpful for parents to share times they’ve struggled with something similar. While it might not be related to social media per se, teenagers often listen more acutely when they don’t feel judged by their feelings or actions.  

Remind them that they can walk away when social media no longer enhances their life, and is instead making it more difficult to be the best version of themselves. This doesn’t need to be an “all-or-nothing” approach. It might be more fruitful to discuss pausing from or curating a social media feed, or disengaging from certain platforms. And it’s often easier to add than subtract in these instances. Instead of deleting social media accounts altogether, help your teen increase other activities and relationships so that there is more balance in on-screen and off-screen life.  

If you’ve tried these tips and still feel like you need some outside perspective, it can help to reach out to a mental health professional. They may provide a setting where a teen feels comfortable talking about some of their insecurities or anxieties, and offer them tools that help them manage the stress that social media can cause or exacerbate.  

Teenagers might not listen or willingly engage in outside support—at least not right away. But showing them that you understand the compelling parts of social media while also always wanting what’s best for them can build a strong foundation for them to come to you if issues arise. Ultimately, social media is an inescapable part of the current adolescent landscape. Like many things in a teenager’s life, this landscape has peaks, valleys, and unclear pathways. Parents and guardians who engage in open dialogue and partner with teens to mitigate social media risks will provide a steady hand for navigating this world together.  

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