Experts and laypeople alike will tell you that social media has been a godsend. It allows people to find communities of like-minded people, share ideas, form friendships and bonds, and have an unending wealth of knowledge at their fingertips. Unfortunately, though, there are many downsides to social media.
It has created a culture of comparison-itis, which is especially true for teens and preteens who are inundated with images of people living their best lives, wearing the best clothes, and showcasing the latest, hottest gadget. Often, those images don’t reflect reality, but in the world of social media, it can be difficult to discern what’s real from what’s staged to appear real.
Teens are especially vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy. Self-doubt and self-confidence issues begin to manifest during the teen years, sometimes earlier. Seeing those long threads of images and dubious posts about fashion, lifestyle, gadgets, and the dream life only add to feelings of inadequacy. The research is still out on how deeply this affects teens’ mental health, but all signs are pointing to social media playing a major role in many instances.
In self-reporting and focus groups, teens report symptoms of increased anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. These reports are alarming, of course, to parents and mental health professionals. They know, as with many other mental health issues, that these symptoms, if left untreated, can lead to long-lasting negative implications.
Some researchers have focused their efforts on assessing the amount of time teens spend scrolling through social media apps and their corresponding feeds. They’ve found that there’s a direct correlation between the number of hours (yes, hours!) spent on social media and negative body image. Teens who spent upwards of three hours a day on social media were twice as likely to report eating disorders or body dysmorphia issues.
Anyone who has children knows that teens tend to spend far more hours online than other age groups through online learning in classrooms, cellphone usage, homework, and time at home after school and on weekends. Mindless scrolling isn’t the only problem. Social media platforms have incentivized post or tweet interaction, thus creating a deeper problem directly related to how teens perceive themselves and their social statuses.
A study out of UCLA looked at the brain’s reward center and found that in teens a high number of likes, reposts, or retweet showed increased activity in the brain’s reward center. That, in turn, creates the frenzy that we see now—competition among teens to get the most likes, comments, reposts, or whatever their chosen platform incentivizes. Now, images are king. Posts with images are more likely to see interaction. For teens, what’s in the image is less important than the number of likes they get for it.
These likes make teens feel good, and who doesn’t want to feel good? The problem is it quickly becomes the only thing teens focus on. They can’t get enough of it.
So, what are parents to do to help their teens avoid the pitfalls of social media? First, recognize the pressures your teens are under. Second, communication, real-live, face-to-face communication is key. Yes, your children will resist, but nine times out of ten, they wish they had an outlet to discuss their feelings. Speak to them about their worth and what makes them unique and important.
Teens need to know they matter. They want to be heard. If the problems aren’t easily solved, seek professional help.