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Are you OK? | Teens and social media

Social scientists say the pandemic only increased our time on social media.

Teens are using social media more. Social media use among middle schoolers rose from 34% in 2012 to 70% in 2018.

Social scientists say the pandemic increased our time on social media.

Social Worker Ashley Mangum from Kids Mental Health Pierce County spoke with us about how young people and their parents can navigate social media in healthy ways.

Mental health implications of social media for teenagers

It’s estimated 95% of teens are now online and 81% are using social media sites. On average, youth and teens have an active presence on at least six social media sites. 

Mangum says that without supervision and guidance social media can present difficult moral, emotional, and mental challenges for teens.  These challenges can include increased stress, anxiety, and depression.

But, Mangum says, there can be a positive side to social media. Social media apps can serve as connectors to resources that help teens gain confidence, skills, and a deeper understanding about a number of things.

So, Mangum says, try thinking about social media in terms of quality and quantity rather than bad or good. When thinking of quality and quantity it’s important to understand the context of your teen child’s social media use and what the time is being used for. If your teen uses social media to stay connected, raise awareness on social issues, or as opportunity to connect with other teens who are able to help create a sense of belonging, some social media interaction can be helpful.

How parents can keep up with ever-changing social media apps

The social media landscape is always changing. According to Pew Research, teens and young adults currently favor Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram. Though many young audiences are also embracing niche social platforms.

This is why Mangum says it’s important to consider your child.  Ask yourself what they are into and, based on their personality, what might be hard for them.

Mangum says at Kids Mental Health Pierce County social workers and counselors often point teens and parents to the Three P’s of social media:

  • First, privacy. How much tracking happens with the app or platform? Does the app have mechanisms that provide accountability? Is your teen’s name involved? How much control over your privacy do you have?  
  • Then, popularity is a big factor. Why is your teen using the app? Does it promote social validation and approval? Does it thrive on "hearts" that affirm posts? And, is that OK for your child?
  • Finally, we look at persuasion. Does the social platform use influence or mechanisms to persuade behaviors? Can users limit this element? 

The balance between privacy and parental concerns

Parents often worry about screen time and what teens are doing on social media. While Mangum says these concerns are valid, she emphasizes parents frame conversations and decisions about teen social media use with a developmental lens. Mangum sites the very social nature of teen life with the following framework:

  • Between ages 12 – 18 we prioritize social relationships.  For teens there is a deep desire to connect with others and there is pressure to stay connected.
  • It’s important for parents to acknowledge the social needs of teenagers and show empathy. Then, parents can initiate open discussions with teenaged children about social media use.
  • Once you’ve had a chance to consider where your teen is coming from, and heard what they have to say, talk about barriers and challenges. This way you can agree on some solutions. Having your teen identify their own challenges with social media can help you with buy-in. For example, you might agree that your teen can chat on social media but needs to let others know they're only on for 15 minutes.
  • Most importantly, you can create agreements with your teen, where their input matters. When you do, you open up the dialogue so you can discuss any dilemmas and create criteria for using social media together. This approach helps your teen to think critically and ask questions when you’re not around
  • Finally, model healthy social media use. Model the social media  and smart phone behaviors you expect of your child.  It doesn’t matter what you say if your actions communicate something different.