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How to Talk to Your Teenagers about Harmful Effects of Social Media

Posted by Laura Perillo on Oct 22, 2021 4:11:41 PM

The rumors are true – the teenage years are indeed filled with the inevitable messy rooms, empty kitchen cabinets, refrigerators and smelly shoes laying around the house. However, aside from the normal teenage happenings in households across the country, parents should be aware of recent statistics uncovered about teenagers and social media. 

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Sunday October 10, 2021, was World Mental Health Day, and just in time to highlight a recent Wall Street Journal article that took an in-depth look at how Instagram, now owned by Facebook, Inc., can be toxic for teenagers. More specifically, research uncovered that 32 percent of adolescent girls stated that if they had concerns regarding body image, looking at different photo apps associated with Instagram made them feel worse.

"The features that Instagram identifies as most harmful to teens appear to be at the platform’s core. The tendency to share only the best moments, a pressure to look perfect and an addictive product can send teens spiraling toward eating disorders, an unhealthy sense of their own bodies and depression, March 2020 internal research states. It warns that the Explore page, which serves users photos and videos curated by an algorithm, can send users deep into content that can be harmful.” Furthermore, “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

This Wall Street Journal article brings to light huge concerns that many parents may have already had about the amount of time their teenagers spend on social media. 

With guidance from Oak Knoll School’s Upper School Counselor Christine Mahoney and Consulting Psychologist Jennifer Butler Sweeney ’92, we have outlined some important conversations to initiate and approaches to follow when it comes to discussing healthy social media use with your teenagers. 

Find a Social Media Post and Talk About it

Although your teenager might balk at your request to check out a social media post and discuss it, this idea gets at the heart of the matter. As a parent, you might already be “following” your child on social media. For example, maybe you see one of your teenager’s friends' post, which engages in an inappropriate behavior. Take this opportunity to talk to your teenager about it. Ask open-ended questions about whether they are exemplifying smart behavior online. Ask your teenager to consider how this post might make others feel. This can enhance empathy and responsibility for their future actions. 

Constant Access to Social Media Is A Blessing and A Curse

Discuss this simple sentence with your teenager.

Also discuss that social media posts have “legs,” meaning posts usually linger in the virtual world for a long time to come. The last thing you or your teenager wants is inappropriate online behavior lurking in the virtual world which might negatively impact college or future job prospects. In addition, parents can discuss with teenagers that although social media has many positive attributes such as a constant stream of information when needed, unless you limit yourself online, it can be exhausting and overwhelming. Ask your teenager to talk about what they see as the pros and cons of social media in general so that they have a more discriminating eye when coming across certain things online. 

Consider the Developmental and Neurological Context

During the teenage years, growth development is off the charts – not only physically, but neurologically, too. The adolescent brain is still developing both logical reasoning (the pre-frontal cortex) and the emotional regulation piece (the limbic system). Keeping this in mind, ask your teenager to take this issue of negative images on social media and react with both logical thought and sound emotional reasoning. It takes parental patience to engage in this type of discussion. However, this may set the stage for your teen to learn how to navigate social media differently as well as creating an atmosphere where they will show you the things they come across that they may find off putting or triggering so that an important discussion can ensue.  

Social Media Trigger for Adolescent Girls

Although the Wall Street Journal article discuses concerns about all teenagers and social media use, it proves that social media can be a more complicated trigger for adolescent girls. The WSJ article outlines that the company’s researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of teenagers, most notably girls. (“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one slide from 2019, summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues. Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”). In addition to body images, adolescent girls (and boys) are hyper aware when they are excluded from social gatherings while scrolling through social media posts. Parents can play an important role in navigating this complicated issue when teenagers experience hurt feelings. 

While many parents of teenagers today might be ready to throw their child’s cellphone away (or hide it), doing so is only a temporary solution for a permanent problem. Social media is here to stay and it’s our responsibility to monitor the content our teens are viewing and spending time trolling. Begin a dialogue today about how social media can be used in beneficial ways, rather than detrimental ways. While we have outlined some of the harmful ways social media can impact teenagers, there are many ways to utilize social media in a positive way, including connecting with loved ways far way or by following and sharing inspiring stories.

Do you have any positive stories to share about how your children are using social media? Let us know in the comments below!

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Topics: technology, parenting, social and emotional learning, mental health, social media

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