What are the effects of social media on teens?
Learn what the research says about how social media can impact teens and get tips on how to help them use it responsibly and safely.
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When her teenage daughters started using social media, the conversation about using it safely started slowly at first, says Jessieca Montgomery Riley.
“But once social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat started getting more popular, especially among their friends, our kids started getting curious and navigating their way on sites and establishing their own pages,” Montgomery Riley says. That’s when the safety conversation shifted to include discussions about usage and monitoring what her daughters were doing online.
It’s a conversation that many families are having today as social media plays a major role in the lives of most teens. Research shows that 54% of teens (13-17-year-olds) say it would be hard to stop using social media platforms.
So how does all this social media use affect teens?
A recent study revealed that screen time and social media usage for tweens and teens averages 8 hours and 39 minutes every day, according to Common Sense Media. And parents like Montgomery Riley are concerned about the effects social platforms are having on their kids.
Some studies indicate that children and teens who frequently use social platforms may experience high levels of anxiety and depression, according to the Mayo Clinic. Others suggest that social media can have a positive impact on the lives of teens. Ultimately, the experience teens have with social media often comes down to how they use it.
What are the positive impacts of social media on youth?
Montgomery Riley describes her family as “heavy” social media users, but she can see the positive effects of social media. For example, she uses social media to grow her company.
“Instagram, TikTok and YouTube—I use those to promote my business,” says Montgomery Riley, the owner of a public speaking and leadership skills company for children in grades K–5. “I also love using it to share snippets of moments in my family, in my life.”
Teens and preteens are just as eager to share their own lives, and the ability to connect and stay up to date with friends and family is one of the benefits of social media. Many teens also see social media platforms as places where they can express their creativity and find support from their friends.
These platforms can allow teens to develop online personas that can enhance their social lives and promote their strongest qualities and talents. Social media can offer a safe haven for tweens and teens who are introverts, who lack self-confidence or who feel like an outsider looking in.
One in 4 students say they use TikTok for school, according to a new survey from online learning platform Study.com. And 69% of those who use TikTok for educational purposes said it has helped them complete their homework.
“Teens can learn some things,” says Montgomery Riley. Sometimes her daughters can stumble across things they’d never see in a library. “And yes, libraries are great, but social media provides that immediate gratification, exposure and an opportunity to see how things evolve.”
What are the negative effects of social media?
The potential negative effects of social media on teenagers have been well documented, and they are an ongoing concern for parents and caregivers.
A leading concern about social media is how it affects the mental health of teens. Studies have linked an increased use of social media to a rise in depression, anxiety, loneliness and lack of sleep. For parents, simply getting kids to log off and unplug can be difficult.
“We talk to our 14-year-old about usage and exposure and the effect it can have on the body,” says Montgomery Riley. “I tell her to give her mind a rest because if she doesn’t sleep, she won’t be able to function in school.”
Many teen users—especially girls—can develop a negative body image through constant exposure on social media to pictures of people that are presented as perfect or beautiful. When they compare themselves to these images, it can sometimes lead to a negative body image.
Self-esteem and peer pressure
It’s important for parents to understand how social media affects self-esteem. Research shows that teens’ desire to feel popular is often tied to the amount of responses and “likes” they receive when they post or share comments. Because of these high expectations, some teens admit to feeling overwhelmed and “worse about their lives” based on their social media interaction.
Another negative effect of social media is cyberbullying. Teens and adults can receive hurtful and malicious messages online. This type of abuse and harassment can cause great damage to the self-esteem and confidence of many teens. And there’s catfishing, too, which is also classified as cyberbullying. One study shows that it only takes 18 to 30 minutes for a predator to persuade a child they’ve never met to meet in person.
For some teens who spend hours online, face-to-face communication can be a struggle. According to some experts, too much social media interaction can affect the critical social skills and the risk-taking that is part of making friends. Part of building a healthy sense of self-esteem is taking the risk of telling someone what you feel—even if you disagree with them.
On the flip side, for many kids who are neurodivergent or struggle with real-world interaction, online interaction is a much more comfortable space to make friends.
As a parent and a teacher of communication skills for children, Montgomery Riley says it’s important that parents educate themselves and their children about using social media responsibly and have an honest conversation about the pros and cons of social platforms.
“Be honest and transparent. Don’t pretend like you’re perfect and nothing has ever happened to you [online],” says Montgomery Riley. “Don’t pretend like you’ve never been cyberbullied or tricked. Don’t be explicit, but be transparent … You have to be an example and walk the talk.”
She adds, “And monitor their activity, and continue to monitor it. Don’t go off and continue on with your life and then check back in with your kids two months later. No, it’s an everyday thing.”