Social connection – the sense of being understood and genuinely belonging within a group – has been identified as a major contributor to a healthy, fulfilling life. It’s a “chicken soup” for our physical and psychological well-being, especially for adolescents who are struggling with who they are and finding their place in the world.
With the onslaught of social media apps such as Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and more, enabling teens to connect socially with “friends” all over the world, the question is, does that fulfill this basic human need? We can crowdsource ride shares, overnight accommodations and fund-raising, but can we fulfill our need for connection online? Teens can easily collect “friends,” join online groups and continually share their opinions and whereabouts to get approval through likes, comments and retweets. No generation has been as “connected” as today’s teenagers. So why are anxiety, depression and suicide increasing at such alarming rates within this age group?
It appears that as “social” as these apps are deemed to be, their positive effects may be fleeting, and they can actually be isolating and defeating to adolescents. Genuine social connection can’t typically be achieved through a number of likes or views on a post. “Being liked or followed on social media is a clear sign that someone is with you, but it doesn’t mean that someone is your close friend or values you as a human being,” says Dr. Rachel Singer, psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change in Rockville, Md.
Instead of using social media to truly connect with one another, teens are actually seeking reassurance. “We waste inordinate amounts of time primping, arranging and posing for our latest Instagram pictures because we want to matter. We want to feel important, valued, noticed, talked about and relevant,” writes author John P. Weiss. But that’s not what ends up happening, observes Dr. Singer. “Teens post something to see the number of likes, retweets, etc., and if not immediately granted or not reaching the level they are seeking, it can create a negative self-evaluation,” she says. “It’s like trying to fill a pasta strainer with water – no matter how much goes into it, it will never fill up.”
Adolescence is already a time of tremendous ego involvement. Teenagers are constantly comparing themselves with classmates in terms of grades, popularity, looks, etc. Social media exacerbates this egocentric period, bringing out the worst in teens’ insecurities. “Before social media, you could have a break from the scrutiny and judgment of peers when you left school; now it follows teens home,” Singer says.
While not all social media use is “bad,” it is yet another area in life in which teens need to strike a balance. Research results published in the November 2018 Journal Of Social And Clinical Psychology by the University of Pennsylvania reports that reducing time spent on social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram may help improve well-being. “Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness,” states the study’s co-author Melissa G. Hunt. “These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.”
How can parents help teens achieve this healthy social media balance? Here are five productive steps you can take:
- Talk with them about the realities of social media. Most social media feeds depict users’ highlight reels, not their real lives. Make sure your teen is aware of the effect these highlight reels have on her sense of self. Ask what she likes and doesn’t like about the apps she uses, and encourage her to note how she feels before and after each use. Discuss how some celebrities have spent time “off the grid” because of social media run amok and what your teen believes is a healthy amount of use.
- Limit screen time. Excessive technology use has been linked to poor mental health outcomes, meaning parents do need to set healthy limits. Teens will be more likely to follow limits that they help establish, but they should not determine whether there will be limits or if and when limits will be enforced. Consider starting by setting technology-free zones (bedroom, short car rides) and time periods (meal times or one hour before bedtime). “Teens do value structure and as parents we need to think long-term about the benefits of maintaining limits,” Singer says. Ideally, experts suggest that parents model healthy online behavior by following these limits themselves as much as possible. “When you’re not busy getting sucked into clickbait social media, you’re actually spending more time on things that are more likely to make you feel better about your life,” says Hunt.
- Increase opportunities for face-to-face (or at least voice-to-voice) interaction. Yes, go Old School. Even when it would be easier to send a text, email or post, make it a family value to communicate without technology as much as possible. Also be sure to schedule fun family and individual activities that are technology-free.
- Help teens identify alternative sources of positive information about themselves that are not linked to the Internet . Singer suggests teens find activities in which they have some mastery and can develop friendships through shared interests. Whether it’s through an activity or developing a new skill, teens need to see themselves as capable and valued in other aspects of their lives. “Teaching them the life skill of valuing themselves is a lifelong gift they can use every day,” she says.
- Learn the power of encouragement over praise . Parents can be one of those alternative sources of positive information by using the language of encouragement. When we praise our teens with such comments as “Wow, you’re so smart!” or “Don’t you look beautiful,” our words often fall flat as our teens think that we have to say those things as their parents. But offering specific observations – not judgments – about their behavior and not about the outcome can be harder for teens to write off. “You seemed to put in a lot of extra time studying for that test and it seemed to pay off, what do you think?” Asking them to think about times when they did something they were proud of, rather than we telling them ourselves, helps them internalize that encouraging voice.
For more ideas about helping teens develop and maintain a healthy social media balance, check out our next webinar, Teens
Curious about the difference between encouragement and praise? For many of us, the language of encouragement is not our native language. Fortunately, PEP has an “app” for that! Join our online class, Encouragement! Building Your Child’s Confidence From the Inside Out where you’ll learn strategies and techniques that will forever alter the way you communicate with your kids, your family, and your colleagues!
This article, shared with permission, originally appeared in the February edition of Washington Parent Magazine.