Recently published statistics indicated that, in 2018, 97% of youth in the United States between the ages of 13 and 17 interacted with social media apps (Mayo Clinic, 2022), and, usually, this interface occurred on their own devices. In fact, it is common to see youth this age interacting and engaging regularly with social media. So, is this increased usage of social media positive, negative, or does it have both qualities? Whether adolescents’ use of social media is helpful, harmful, or both is complicated, and the answer likely depends on several factors, such as your child’s age, maturity or developmental level, and/or self-confidence.
Adolescent outcomes from social-media usage can vary from person to person and experience to experience (Beyens et al., 2020). Your child may be using social media to continue, or enhance, connections with their peers. For example, your child may be sharing their new favorite song, discussing a homework assignment, or having other positive and meaningful interactions with another child. However, as a parent, you will probably want to be knowledgeable about and aware of whom your child is communicating with and how your child is communicating with them. For example, your child may, knowingly or unknowingly, be engaging in harmful interactions, like as a perpetrator or victim of bullying.
Let’s examine some of the benefits and dangers of adolescent social-media usage and consider how you can help your adolescent’s social-media experience be positive.
Adolescent Social Media Benefits
Developmentally, adolescents are at a stage in life when they begin to explore and understand where they fit socially into society. Social experiences become increasingly important and frequent as children move through their teenage years (Shah et al., 2019). Teens may often confide in one another during times of emotional distress or confusion. This interaction is not new to the social-media age, and, generally, it is not a bad situation. Using social media allows teens to have discussions and voice their thoughts and feelings in real time (Shah et al., 2019). In addition, they can share and apply pro-social behaviors and standards that can translate into offline social interactions. Furthermore, research has continually shown that social-media use can help adolescents make and keep friendships (Uhls et al., 2017).
Using social media can provide opportunities for adolescents to explore who they are as an individual, such as their values, needs, or goals, and determine how they want to present themselves to others. Some research has shown that adolescents who communicate online demonstrate higher levels of self-understanding (Uhls et al., 2017). Additionally, social media can give teens an avenue for self-expression. Research indicates that there is a connection between social-media usage and adolescents being able to express themselves in a way that feels true to themselves, and this, then, can increase youths’ levels of self-confidence (Kim et al., 2019).
Adolescent Social Media Dangers
As discussed above, social media can have a positive impact on child development. However, social-media usage also has the potential to have a negative psychological impact on children (Shah et al., 2019). Some of the more common negative consequences include the following:
- Experience depression
- Develop body image issues
- Increase risky behavior
- Feel anxious
- Suffer loneliness
- Experience suicide ideation
Cyberbullying refers to aggressive and harassing actions that an individual or group uses via electronic communication with the intent to harm or intimidate another person or group. Research indicates that victims of cyberbullying have an increased chance of developing depression or other maladaptive behavioral problems. Furthermore, digital applications offer an avenue for bullies to use as they exhibit harmful behaviors because they eliminate ways their victims can avoid them, they decrease the chance of bystander intervention, and they maintain online anonymity (Parris et al., 2022; Shah, 2019). In addition, victims of cyberbullying are often not the targets of in-person bullying (Parris et al., 2022), which means that parents cannot rely on in-person social interactions their child has as predictors of their child’s online experiences.
Some examples of cyberbullying include the following:
- Engaging in harassment via instant messaging (e.g., direct messaging, wall postings, text),
- Creating websites that target a specific individual,
- Posting pictures or videos the victim would not want to have posted,
- Producing threatening video content, and
- Doxing (i.e., accessing and sharing a victim’s personal information found online with the intention of eroding the privacy and/or security of the victim)
What Can Parents and Caregivers Do to Ensure a Healthy Social Media Experience?
Promoting open and honest discussions with adolescents is one way to help these youth deal with many of the challenges they face in their lives—including social-media experiences. These conversations could happen regularly, so you are able to check in and follow any challenges your child may be having. You can help your child understand digital boundaries by explaining to your child what their online behavior is expected to be. Make sure you and child clearly understand and agree about what content and interactions are allowed based on your family’s rules. In addition, you will want to explain to your child how they can keep themselves safe while interacting with others online. Below, find a few resources that contain information on safety steps you can share with your child.
Earlier this year the American Psychological Association (APA) released their most current recommendations for adolescent social-media use. The APA is a premier scientific and professional organization that sets benchmarks and recommendations for the field of psychology. This report urges parents to ensure their youth engage in some type of “social media literacy training” (American Psychological Association, 2023). Social-media literacy training includes mental, emotional, and technical preparation that intends to promote positive social-media experiences and outcomes (Polanco-Levicán & Salvo-Garrido, 2022). There are learning activities, planners, tips, and conversation guides that parents and children can access. For instance, Comonsense.org has several different social-media literacy resources and trainings that are tailored to different child-development stages and needs. Becoming social-media literate is only one of the APA’s recommendations for positive adolescent social-media usage.
A few of the additional recommendations given by the APA report include the following:
- Be mindful of your child’s stage of development, and adjust usage, settings, and permissions based on this level of development.
- Monitor what your child is doing on social media. Be sure to keep your child’s privacy in mind while doing this. Younger children will most likely need more supervision and instruction on how to use social media safely. As children mature, offer opportunities for your child to increase their digital literacy and gain confidence. Parents may wish to allow their child more privacy in their social-media usage as the child gets older.
- Explain, in a developmentally appropriate way, and be clear about the associated family and/or legal consequences of engaging in social-media activities that encourage illegal behavior or other harmful and high-risk behaviors.
- Monitor your child and be vigilant about supervising their social-media usage so you can help identify when social media is having a negative impact on your child’s mental health.
- Establish family rules around social-media use (e.g., Family Media Plan) to prevent social media from interfering with your adolescent’s sleep or exercise.
A link to the full APA report, Health Advisory on Social Media Use in Adolescence, can be found below in the Additional Resources section below.
The Thrive Initiative offers web-based universal parent-education programming—Grow and Branch Out—and two supplemental parent-education modules—Adolescent Mental Health: Parenting to Wellness and Harmful Behaviors: Recognize. Respond. Repair —that can offer additional strategies for engaging in social-media use for adolescents and teens. You can find more about each program listed above by visiting the Thrive website at https://thrive.psu.edu
Parents will likely want to understand the impacts that social-media use can have on their child’s development and health. Youth should be encouraged to explore and interact with the parts of social media that can be productive and healthy. On the other hand, there are dangers, and you and your child should discuss these dangers, so they can be avoided if possible. The digital landscape is constantly changing, which, makes it difficult to be aware of all of the areas and uses of social media, and new social-media apps are continually being developed and adopted. Therefore, to help and protect your child, engage in ongoing and honest conversations with your child.
APA Health Advisory on Social Media Use In Adolescence
This offers a more in depth look at the APA findings and guidance mentioned above. The web page provides the key findings of the study and a detailed list of 10 recommendations for adolescent social-media usage.
Healthychildren.org- Family Media Plan
The Family Media Plan is a robust tool that helps families clearly establish expectations of media usage. Topics covered include agreed upon amount of screen time usage, how privacy will be managed, and expected online behavior.
Online Safety Fact Sheet
This resource provides parents and caregivers with an explanation of some of the negative impacts social-media usage can have on adolescents. It also provides platform-specific strategies and advice for parents regarding teen social-media use.
Stopbullying.gov is a federal website that is provided and curated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The website offers several resources and information regarding bullying and cyberbullying. The cyberbullying portion of the website provides parents, caregivers, teachers, and individuals who interact with youth topics for discussion and strategies and tools that can be used to help reduce cyberbullying.
American Psychological Association. (2023, May 9). APA panel issues recommendations for adolescent social media use. Press Releases. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2023/05/adolescent-social-media-use-recommendations
Beyens, I., Pouwels, J. L., van Driel, I. I., Keijsers, L., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2020). The effect of social media on well-being differs from adolescent to adolescent. Scientific Reports, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-67727-7
Kim E. S., Hong, Y. J., Kim, M., Kim, E. J. & Kim, J. J. (2019). Relationship between self-esteem and self-consciousness in adolescents: An eye-tracking study. Psychiatry Investigation, 16(4), 306-313. https://doi.org/10.30773/pi.2019.02.10.3
Mayo Clinic. (2022, February 26). Teens and social media use: What’s the impact? Tween and teen health. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/tween-and-teen-health/in-depth/teens-and-social-media-use/art-20474437#:~:text=A%202018%20Pew%20Research%20Center,%2C%20Facebook%2C%20Instagram%20or%20Snapchat.
Parris, L., Lannin, D. G., Hynes, K., & Yazedjian, A. (2022). Exploring social media rumination: Associations with bullying, cyberbullying, and distress. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 37(5-6).
Polanco-Levicán, K., & Salvo-Garrido, S. (2022). Understanding social media literacy: A systematic review of the concept and its competences. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health,19(14). https://doi.org/10.3390%2Fijerph19148807
Shah, J., Das, P., Muthiah, N., & Milanaik, R. (2019). New age technology and social media: Adolescent psychosocial implications and the need for protective measures. Current Opinion in Pediatrics, 31(1), 148-156. http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/MOP.0000000000000714
Uhls, Y. T., Ellison, N. B., & Subrahmanyam, K. (2017). Benefits and costs of social media in adolescence. Pediatrics, 140(Supp 2), S67-S70. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2016-1758E