Way back (in digital time) in 2011, The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a comprehensive study on the impact of social media on children, adolescents and the family. In those kinder, gentler days of social media the AAP study pointed out that for adolescents there were many positive aspects to social media, though, yes, there were negatives too.
How times have changed, or so it seems. Today, we see a steady stream of new studies, opinions and statistics about social media and its potentially harmful impact on adults as well as adolescents.
Of course, today’s social media world is a bit more adventurous and alluring than 2011. When the AAP study came out there was no Snapchat, the most frequently used social media site for teens today where you can say and do whatever you want and it disappears in 10 seconds. Salacious apps like Tinder probably existed, but were less visible and maybe less accessible to those underage. Anonymous messaging apps like Whisper and Ask.fm weren’t around and hidden apps like Calculator% and Calculator+ hadn’t made the teen scene. These latter apps cleverly look like regular calculators to the uninitiated, but entering a passcode reveals a secret back storage area for private photos.
To be fair, there are positive aspects to social media for adolescents. Social media enables communication with family and friends, particularly those that live far away. It can be a rich source of information, news and current events. You can meet other people with similar likes and hobbies – digital pen pals if you will.
On the other hand, the allure of the forbidden and anonymous virtual world can be extremely powerful to an adolescent. Unfortunately, for parents of pre-teens and teens, the ability to ensure your child is using social media wisely is becoming increasingly difficult. Consider these social media statistics.
- 55% of teens have given out personal information to someone they don’t know, including photos and physical descriptions.
- 29% have posted mean information, embarrassing photos or spread rumors about someone
- 29% have been stalked or contacted by a stranger or someone they don’t know
- 24% have had private or embarrassing info made public without their permission
- 39% think their online activity is private from everyone, including parents
In many ways, the impact of social media usage on adolescents is just being recognized. A recent UK study in Reuters Health suggests, “Young girls, those aged 10, who are more interactive with social media have lower levels of wellbeing by age 15 than their peers who interact with social media less at age 10,” said lead author Cara Booker, a researcher at the University of Essex.
Prompted by another study, The Children’s Commissioner of the UK issued a stark warning that 10-12 year olds are increasingly anxious about their online image and “keeping up appearances”. The study suggested some children are becoming almost addicted to “likes” on Facebook and Instagram as a form of social validation. This can be made worse when they start to follow celebrities and others outside of close family and friends, whose social media accounts can undermine children’s views of themselves.
Ana Homayoun in the NY Times last year noted, “Many people — adults and kids alike — view likes, loves, comments and followers as a barometer for popularity, even within a smaller, closed group. Teens can quickly get caught up in the feedback loop, posting and sharing images and videos that they believe will gain the largest reaction. Over time, teens’ own values may become convoluted within an online world of instantaneous feedback, and their behavior online can become based on their “all about the likes” values rather than their real-life values.”
Victoria L. Dunckley in Psychology Today described the many reasons why social media is a particular problem for pre-teens. She points out that a tween’s underdeveloped frontal cortex can’t manage the distraction or the temptations that come with social media use.
- A tween’s “more is better” mentality is a dangerous match for social media. Do they really have 1,456 friends? Do they really need to be on it nine hours a day? Social media allows (and encourages) them to overdo their friend connections like they tend to overdo other things in their lives.
- Social media is an addictive form of screen entertainment. And, like video game addiction, early use can set up future addiction patterns and habits.
- Social media replaces learning the hard social “work” of dealing face-to-face with peers, a skill that they will need to practice to be successful in real life.
- Social media can cause teens to lose connection with family and instead view “friends” as their foundation. Since the cognitive brain is still being formed, the need for your teen to be attached to your family is just as important now as when they were younger. While they need attachments to their friends, they need healthy family attachment more.
What should you be doing as a parent of an adolescent? Here are ten suggestions to consider.
- Delay access for pre-teens. No one under 13 is allowed on Facebook, yet according to statistics posted on GuardChild, 38% of Facebook users last year were under the age of 13; 25% were under the age of 10. The longer parents delay access, the more time a child will have to mature so that he or she can use technology more wisely.
- Limit social media usage to large screens kept in a central location in your home. Limiting usage to a kitchen or family room, in the open, will reduce the time spent on social media, as well as the potential for misuse compared to the privacy of their room or on a smartphone.
- Keep track of the time spent on social media. The average teen spends nine hours a day connected to social media. Social media is an entertainment technology. It does not make your child smarter or more prepared for real life or a future job; nor is it necessary for healthy social development. Social media time is lost potential during key periods of your child’s brain and social development.
- Encourage face-to-face time with their friends. Help them learn how to plan real, in-person, social gatherings. They may roll their eyes at first, but not for long.
- Spend more real non-tech time together. Teens who are strongly attached to their parents and family show more overall happiness and success in life. They still need their parents even as teens, and in some ways more then than ever.
- Talk to your kids about online dangers. Parry Aftab,noted online safety and privacy expert and Executive Director of WiredSafety says, “Who’s a stranger online? Everyone is! You need to remind your children that these people are strangers and that the standard rules always apply.” Urge your kids to avoid questionnaires, free giveaways and contests even if forwarded from a friend. Let them know that pop-up ads to “win a free iPad”, though tempting, are simply an attempt to gain personal information.
- Teach your kids about online reputation and help them realize that their online and real-life experiences are more intertwined than they may think. You might cite current events, like an incident at Harvard last year when the university revealed that it had rescinded admissions offers to at least 10 students who shared offensive images within what they thought was a private Facebook group chat. The students posted memes and images that mocked minority groups, child abuse, sexual assault and the Holocaust, among other things. Remind adolescents that nothing online is ever completely private and talk to them about the ways private information can become public.
- Follow their accounts and check privacy settings. Nothing is private in the digital world, and so it should not be private to parents. Make sure privacy settings are in place, but know that those settings can give you a false sense of security. Encourage your teen to have private conversations in person or via a verbal phone call instead if they don’t want you to read it on social media. Monitor the pictures your child posts online.
- You might consider apps available to monitor your child’s social media use. Apps like Net Nanny enable parents to block porn sites, manage time online and monitor social media activity. Bark, an app that monitors accounts on 20 different social media platforms, along with iOS and Android texting and email accounts, alerts parents to potentially risky behavior. TeenSafe links teens’ phones directly to their parents’ phones, and allows supervision of phone calls, emails, texts and social media use. Keep in mind though that such aggressive monitoring runs the risk of breaching trust with your child at a crucial developmental time.
- Last, set the right example. Tweeting and updating your Facebook page at a stop light and taking every opportunity to make sure you haven’t missed an important post sets the wrong example that will surely be followed my your child.
Ana Homayoun stated it well, “Helping children think through how they might react or behave in certain scenarios can give them the confidence to make better decisions under pressure. Because in the end, teens’ online life choices can have real-world outcomes – as those students whose admittance at Harvard was rescinded learned the hard way.”
At Espyr we help client organizations and their families with behavioral health issues, including how to help adolescents use social media responsibly. If you’d like to know more about how we can help your organization give us a call. You can reach us at 866-570-3479 or at espyr.com .