As a therapist that really enjoys working with teenagers, one of the interactions that always catches my attention is the mention of excessive phone or social media usage when I’m speaking to a parent. Without fail, it usually elicits a very exaggerated eye roll and an exasperated sigh from the teenager present, followed by a glance in my direction to see what my response to this age-old complaint will be.
What I always share with teens and parents is that excessive social media usage can have a detrimental and lasting impact on a young person’s developing mind. For the past several years, I have heard time and time again of the perils that teens face every time they open Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok. It ranges from the ever-present “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out) to the dizzying effect of constant information overload (“Breaking news! The world is collapsing! Society is busting at the seams! The pandemic is worse!”) to the images and videos of filtered faces and bodies that can distort their reality.
There’s important work that goes into addressing some of these concerns as they’re sometimes insidious and teenage clients can be timid to address them up front, even if they’re being impacted negatively by them. But generally, after having built some trust, most teens will open up about the constant pressure they face when they open their favorite apps.
Here’s what I see as being among the most common impacts of social media through the eyes of teens:
“I feel like I can never know what is real.”
Misinformation is everywhere and we’re not just talking about news stories. Teens tend to report being misled about how the average teen looks, how relationships are supposed to look, and how their lives should be.
“I open my favorite app and everywhere I look, I see pictures and videos of all those Instagram models. I see people post flawless images of themselves that say they aren’t wearing make-up but it turns out it may be a filter that they’re using. It makes me insecure and I ask myself, ‘why don’t I look like that?’”
Teens are already in a vulnerable time in their lives where they are on a journey to discovering who they are and how they want to present themselves to the world. The constant barrage of “filtered” bodies and faces can distort their image of what “normal” looks like causing them to struggle with feelings of low self-esteem.
“Everyone is hanging out without me.”
Some social media apps have features where users are able to upload short videos and pictures to their “story” section to be flipped through briefly by friends and followers. Teenagers today often use this function to broadcast who they’re hanging out with, what they’re doing and what their plans are for the day.
“I may be having a really good day until I get home and watch my best friend’s Snapchat story. I come to find out that they and other friends are at the mall hanging out without me. It makes me ask myself ‘Why wasn’t I invited? Are they mad at me?’ Sometimes I feel pretty insecure after seeing that.”
There was a time when friendships could be carried out in a peaceful and personal way. Who you saw and what you did with a friend was between you two. Today, teens are faced with the temptation to compare their friendships with the friendships of others. I find teens reporting that they will ruminate and experience anxiety about their relationships and whether or not they’re on good terms with friends they saw a few hours earlier.
Social engagement is important in the adolescent years as it helps teens begin to learn how to navigate complex social interactions. Knowing how to successfully and confidently navigate these interactions at this time in their lives can help them greatly as they transition into young adulthood.
“I lose a lot of time and interactions due to my scrolling.”
Teens are in a time in their lives when their brains are developing in a particular way. They’re experiencing the need for more social engagement while still working on managing their time and building healthy habits. Scrolling through videos and commenting on things with friends has a more immediate “reward” than finishing their stressful and challenging homework on time so they can get the grades they want. This can cause teens to get behind on work which will raise their stress levels and can cause them to feel irritable.
Surprisingly, a bigger complaint I hear from parents (and teens, though they wouldn’t want me telling their parents this!) about scrolling is that it causes them to isolate far more. One teen remarked “I might be able to get my work done, but next thing I know, I will have ignored my family for the rest of the night because I was in my room scrolling for hours.” Isolative behaviors can be fuel for depressive moods and disorders. Teens need a healthy balance of alone time and family time for their wellbeing.
“The internet is forever… and that is scary.”
Adolescence tends to be a time of insecurity and awkwardness. How many of us think of middle school and being 13 years old fondly? Your body is changing, your voice starts to sound weird, and you still like cartoons but suddenly that is “uncool.” Before social media, we could all go through these changes somewhat privately. Your mother may have snapped a photo of you, got it developed, then pasted it into a photo album that sits on a shelf for years, never to be seen or brought up again.
Teens today are now living in a hyper-aware world where everything they do and their rapidly changing likes and interests are being documented through text, photo and videos. In flexing their creative muscles, young teenagers may find it exciting to explore and post things online that, several years later, they may cringe at. What was once seen and known as a time of making silly mistakes and learning and moving on from them is now a time of perfection.
“If I do something online, it could potentially haunt me for the rest of my life. The past isn’t the past anymore, it stays present forever. No matter what you try to do to unsay something, you can’t. It stresses me out.”
Helping teens in therapy means helping them create flexibility in their thinking so that they can be more compassionate with themselves when they make mistakes and be open to learning from them and becoming resilient. Resiliency is key to maintaining your mental health and this is something I love teaching teenagers early on as it will be useful to them for the rest of their lives.
“What are people saying about me online?”
Unfortunately, we’re all likely aware of the prevalence of online bullying and harassment. Young people who experienced bullying at school could at least retreat to their homes and find a safe haven. Today, teens with social media may experience bullying wherever they go, as long as they have their phones in their pockets.
“Rumors are spread so much easier online. The things I tell my friends may get posted or shared instantly and passed on online. It feels like I can’t escape it.”Some teens may not experience bullying online but they may grow dependent on the amount of likes and comments they get on something they post.
“I like that there is always the potential of posting and going viral. I could get a lot of validation about myself from positive comments but the hate comments will get to me and affect me.”
This dependency can bring teens away from their real-life interactions and cause them to base their worth and self-esteem on an image they created of themselves online that may or may not be true.
All in all, creating a healthy balance of phone and social media usage is key in helping teens navigate this “Pandora’s box” that we call social media. The biggest tip I can give parents is to create an open environment for teens to share what they’re experiencing online. Withholding judgement and criticism at the beginning of a conversation can help teens feel more comfortable sharing without fear.
Once teens have been heard and can see that the adult speaking to them is interested in their life and what they have to say, they will be far more open to feedback. Together parents and teens should be working on creating a “team” mentality, where both parties know that they’re working towards the common good.
Is your teen or adolescent facing some of these challenges? Or are you concerned about the impact of social media on their wellbeing? We’re here to help and be a resource for you.
Cindy Coughlin is a licensed mental health counselor for Catholic Charities New Hampshire’s Mental Health Counseling Services program. She provides psychotherapy for adolescents, adults, seniors and families seeking assistance with anxiety, depression, stress management, life transitions and grief and loss. She offers counseling in both English and Spanish.