The teenage brain has confounded parents for generations. Nowadays, with the lives of most teenagers so heavily enmeshed in social media, it’s even harder for parents to know what’s truly going on behind the screens.
Social media can give voice to the voiceless, accelerate and aid learning, and help people to feel supported and uplifted. Yet social media can also have a range of negative effects on teenagers, which include:
1. Brain Development:
Social media can play a major role in a child’s environment and subsequently affect their developing brain by impacting how it processes information, reacts to situations, and remembers events. Current research indicates that a child’s brain development is shaped by social media use and exposure in the following ways:
Adolescents suffering from internet addiction may, over time, experience structural changes in their brain and have lower grey matter. Teens who suffer from other addictive tendencies (i.e substance dependency) may, therefore, be predisposed to becoming addicted to social media and the internet
The multitasking commonly associated with social media can cause adolescent children to take longer to accomplish tasks, which can also hinder the quality of their homework or studies
2. Privacy & Reputation:
Even when social media users have their accounts set to private (which only allows people that they are networked with to view their content) privacy on social media is virtually non-existent. Any content posted in a social space can be easily re-posted and subsequently viewed by third parties.
Social media lacks proper privacy, which leads to problems for young users ranging from image-based abuse to not getting accepted for a job or University program.
3. Body Image & Self-Esteem
Today’s teenagers are exposed to images and statuses that portray perfection. Social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram have a tendency to showcase idealized body-types through images that have been cosmetically altered, and therefore set unrealistic and unattainable beauty standards for adolescent children whose bodies are undergoing uncontrollable change.
Photos of models with flawless complexions can make teens feel all the more insecure about having hormonal skin, and overtly sexualized representations of young-adult females in mainstream media can be hugely conflicting for teenage girls who, until recently, were only just children.
Research shows that ongoing exposure to unrealistic beauty standards through social media can affect how teenagers perceive their own bodies. These perceptions can negatively affect a teenager’s physical and mental health.
4. Sexual Behaviour
One of the negative effects of social media on teens is that sexually suggestive or explicit content is prevalent throughout numerous social networking sites. Exposure to sexual content that portrays unrealistic or harmful sexual behaviours and stereotypes can negatively influence teenagers who are only just beginning to develop their sexual identities. This can result in them having unreasonable expectations of sexual norms, experiencing difficulty in forming healthy sexual relationships or developing risky sexual behaviours (4).
Using social media can greatly disrupt sleep patterns by compelling teens to stay up late or wake throughout the night to check notifications. The blue light from mobile phone screens can also confuse sleep cycles. Research indicates that teenagers require 8-10 hours of sleep and that not getting enough sleep can affect their health in the following ways:
Difficulty learning and concentrating
Feeling stressed or anxious
Health issues such as acne and viral illnesses
Unhealthy eating and weight gain
6. Social Skills
Developing social skills helps teenagers to establish and maintain friendships. Due to the fact that teenagers and children spend a lot of time interacting over social media sites and apps, many of them are establishing social interaction skills that don’t necessarily apply to the offline world. While, of course, social media can help to nurture and strengthen existing relationships, it’s integral that teenagers also learn how to have meaningful, face to face exchanges with people.
Being socially isolated is a major risk factor for both depression and suicide (3). With adolescents now spending more time online and less time interacting with people in the real world, they risk not only struggling to develop effective social skills but also predisposing themselves to mental health problems.
7. Mental Health Problems
Research indicates that teenagers who spend more than 2 hours a day on social media are more likely to experience mental health problems such as psychological distress. Teenage girls are particularly susceptible to peer pressure and are therefore at risk of having negative online experiences that can impact their development and lead to anxiety disorders and depression (1).
So, are parents right to be worried about the negative effects of social media on teens? Or are these concerns merely a sign of a generational-gap?
The answer is, rather aptly, it’s complicated.
While, historically, new technologies have always sparked fearful commentary (the invention of the train had people genuinely convinced that travelling at speeds upwards of 30 miles per hour would kill them) which has seemed laughable in hindsight, many of the fears surrounding social media are justified. However, it’s not necessarily the medium in itself that is a threat to our teens. Social media is a tool and (as with any tool) in the hands of people it can either be used or misused. So while we struggle to understand the negative effects that social media can have on teenagers, we need to remember that the dark side of social media is often little more than a manifestation of the dark side of humanity; a darkness that has always been there but – through its presence on social media – is now more visible than ever.
Therefore, the best way to minimize the negative effects of social media on teens is to provide them with a strong moral compass and guide them in creating solutions that help them safely navigate user-driven environments. If you’d like more information on the risks and benefits of social media and how to promote healthy use, please visit the Center on Media and Child Health website.
2. Young Health Movement & RSPH Royal Society for Public Health. #Status of mind: Social media and young people’s mental health.
4. 2003. Ward, M. L. Understanding the role of entertainment media in the sexual socialization of American youth: A review of empirical research.