6 Major Dangers of Social Media for Kids and Teens (+ What to Do About It)
For the past three years, you’ve had her carry a simple flip phone in case of emergencies.
Now, that phone has said it’s final salute and it’s time to get a new one.
But she doesn’t want the same one she had before.
“Lucy has an iPhone and it’s awesome. Mom, it’s not like I’m gonna do anything bad,” she says to you in her best pleading voice, at the first hint of your arching, “I don’t know about that,” eyebrow.
“I’m three years older, and all the kids have smartphones now,” she goes on. You now suddenly have a headache and are hit with the realization that this whole parenting thing just got a whole lot harder.
Have you ever been in this situation? If you have children, you will eventually.
According to the most recent research, a child gets their first smartphone at 10.3 years old while 50% of children have their first social media account by age 12.
A bit scary to think about, isn’t it?
Of course, by no means are you required to give them a smartphone at such a young age. However, you also can’t stave off the world of social media from your teen forever.
Eventually, they’ll be introduced. So, it’s better you do it on your terms.
But first, is there just a lot of hype surrounding social media’s real impact on kids? Is it ultimately bad or good?
Is social media bad or good?
It’s true that smartphones themselves aren’t fundamentally good or bad.
They give us all kinds of useful functionality and quality-of-life improvements while also being the carrier of some things that can be harmful to our mental health.
So long as you properly manage your use, you can take advantage of the positives while effectively managing the negatives.
Of course, it’s not quite so simple as that.
In her film, Screenagers, filmmaker, mother, and Stanford-trained physician Dr. Delaney Ruston digs into the issue of modern tech use in children and teens and its effects on families.
We won’t spoil the film, but suffice it to say that frequent Internet consumption is affecting kids in a big way, and social media is a large part of that.
Check out episode 28 of the TFM podcast, where Robert talks with Dr. Delaney Ruston about the effects of heavy screen use on teens:
The dangers of social media are real
In Cox Communications’s recent Teen Internet Safety Survey, they found that the average teen spends nearly 6 hours online each day with 92% of those being social media users.
They also found that as a result of that frequent Internet and social media use:
- 1-in-4 Teens have been the victim of cyberbullying via social
- Half (50%) of teens have witnessed cyberbullying
- And more parents are taking steps to manage their teen’s Internet use, roughly half of teens admit taking steps to hide their online behavior from parents
Clearly, social media has its benefits. It can:
- Connect us in ways we never could
- It provides a safe gateway for more introverted personalities to practice being social (though isn’t a healthy long-term replacement for face-to-face contact)
- It can keep us informed of the world’s events and gives the average more of a voice than in the past, and
- Allow us to follow the things and people that interest us
However, the dangers of social media for teens are arguably much more compelling, and only now are we truly beginning to understand what they are.
6 Dangers of Social Media for Kids and Teens
Without a doubt, if you’re a parent, you need to take steps to help your kids develop healthy habits with technology like smartphones, social, and the Internet in general.
But social media stands as a much more immediate and pressing challenge to our kid’s well-being for several reasons.
That’s why in this guide, we’ll be covering everything you need to know about overcoming the dangers of social media to teens, including…
Table of Contents:
- The 6 dangers of social media for kids and teens:
- Social comparison
- Reduced attention
- Personal data-stealing and abusing of information
- What to do about it
- Set up a tech contract
- Teach them self-love
- Empower their own sense of competency
- Additional resources on managing tech use in kids and teens
- Frequently asked questions
First, let’s talk about the major dangers of social media for kids and teens. After we dive into that, we’ll talk about what you can do about it.
According to a recent study published in scientific journal ScienceDirect, over 210 million people around the world suffer from Internet and social media addictions.
One of the greatest dangers of social media inherent in itself is addiction. According to Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) in the UK, “Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol.”
“[Social media] is now so entrenched in the lives of young people that it is no longer possible to ignore it when talking about young people’s mental health issues.,” Cramer says.
Both cigarette and alcohol addictions are much more chemical than psychological like social media, even hereditary in the case of alcoholism, so we don’t want to draw that comparison too closely.
However, just speaking of them in the same breath is enough to paint a very clear picture of what we’re dealing with.
Addiction is a dangerous downhill slope that can affect virtually everything.
In teens, social media addiction can affect their academic performance, family relationships, and even physical health. It can even double depressive symptoms in teens that spend more than 5 hours a day on their smartphone.
Part of the problem in terms of both smartphone and social media addiction is the way software/apps are being designed to trigger us.
Finally, take that new knowledge and apply it with Nick Wolny’s practical tips for dealing with smartphone addiction in episode 48 of the TFM podcast:
2. Social comparison (and the self-hatred that comes with it)
One of the most oft-cited dangers of social media is the way it creates a breeding ground for social comparison.
Several studies such as this one from PsycNET have found that regular social use causes social comparisons that lead to reduced self-esteem.
And a survey by the RSPH asked 1,500 teens to track their moods while using the five most popular social media platforms. Instagram and Snapchat were at the top of the list, with teens reporting the platforms often making them feel inadequate, anxious, and self-hatred.
Social media creates a kind of comparison trap for teens, who often see their peers or the glittering lives of Instagram influencers fill their feed with unrealistic notions about everything from their beauty to intelligence, talent, and success.
Influence and social media
Users are often pressured themselves to keep up a perfect front to impress their followers, having become addicted to the validation of others.
This happens partly due to the structure of social media offering only snapshots or moments in someone’s life. And, understandably, that the average person only ever wants to post about the good things in their life.
The problem is, from the outside in, this makes the person’s life look perfect and yours comparatively sad and inadequate.
Some brave social media influencers have come out to shed a light on the nature of social media and influence in general, posting unedited pics of themselves or writing about what their life is really like.
However, those stories are few and far between.
Teens often see the accomplishments of others on social media whom they envy and immediately look at themselves and feel like they’re not enough.
This can cause bitterness, hatred, and for those teens to often seek validation more aggressively than before, posting pics of their own body or trying too hard to make themselves look good in front of others on social.
But the validation teens get from that is never great enough to stop those comparisons, so they continue to look to others and feel more and more self-hatred, often spiraling into depressive symptoms.
3. Reduced attention
One of the more direct dangers of social media, studies have found that frequent social use can increase instances of multi-tasking.
That might not sound like a big deal, until you realize what that frequent multi-tasking does to us.
The more you multitask, the more your performance on any individual task declines and the harder it becomes to focus on any one thing. The challenging part about it is, the more we multitask, the more productive the brain feels (though the less productive it actually is).
To learn more about this, check out our recent episode (41) of the TFM podcast with Laurie Wolk, author of Girls Just Wanna Have Likes: How to Raise Confident Girls in the Face of Social Media Madness, where Robert talks with Laurie about how social media affects teen attention and confidence:
4. Personal data-stealing and abusing of information
This is a danger not often talked about, though in some ways it can be a bit more disturbing.
Social media acts as a playground for predators, both predators of teens and identity.
Having a public profile on social immediately invites your child to:
- Be harassed by classmates
- Receive messages from strangers
- Have their basic information stolen
However, even a public profile isn’t actually private, so make sure to take time to explain to your kids that it’s not as easy as hitting “private” in their social apps and calling it a day.
“Private” isn’t private enough
Identity thieves are smart.
They know that a lot of people pick simple things like their dog’s name for their password, so they pay attention to little details your teen reveals without realizing it to steal logins and even their identity.
In addition to identity and information thieves, teens need to be made aware of predators.
It’s a misconception that they would show up outside your child’s school and stalk them or try to convince them to jump in their car. Instead, they use persuasion to convince your teen to go to them to avoid trouble.
Let them know that it’s unsafe to talk with anyone online that they don’t already have a face-to-face relationship with. Also, inform them of how predators typically operate so they can spot the behavior.
Then there’s posting.
It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and post something that you regret later and could put you in an embarrassing position.
Child trafficking human rights organization Love146 recommends that teens ask two questions before posting online:
- “Is this something I would say or do face-to-face?” and;
- “Would I be OK with this photo/quote of mine being posting in the school hallways?”
Anything your kids post online can be used against them, especially in cases of cyberbullying, so make sure they’re exercising reason before posting.
More on how to share more mindfully on social in episode 66 of the TFM podcast with Amy Giddon:
Cyber-bullying is one of the greatest concerns of parents, and for good reason.
As we talked about earlier, half of all teens have witnessed cyber-bullying and a quarter have been cyber-bullied before. And still other studies have found that as many as 59% of teens have been cyber-bullied.
Cyber-bullying attacks at the heart of what makes being a teen so difficult. When you’re young, you’re building up your self-esteem and finding yourself.
When your own peers attack you, that can have a huge impact on how you feel about yourself, sometimes resulting in self-harm, panic attacks, or even suicide in extreme cases.
This is where you may decide that monitoring social media is a necessary evil, as it’s difficult to be certain of what your child is being exposed to online otherwise.
However, here are some other things you can do to aid in catching cyber-bullying in its tracks:
- Notice changes in your child’s mood, especially just after their social use
- As well as changes in your child’s sleep quality and demeanor, such as visible anxiousness, nervousness, or reluctance to go to school
- Remind your child regularly that you love and support them, and make it the norm to talk about their day
- And make sure they know what cyber-bullying looks like. Show them examples online and make sure they know how to recognize cyber-bullying if they see it.
6. Social isolation
A final short but important point is what frequent social media use does to teens and their close- especially family– relationships.
A study published in American Journal of Preventative Medicine (AJPM) found, “Young adults with high SMU [social media use] seem to feel more socially isolated than their counterparts with lower SMU.”
It’s a curious thing, that we’re connecting in one way more than we ever have before. And, yet, many teens, as well as adults, feel socially isolated as a result of our new digital social world.
A lack of close relationships, both strained relationships with parents and feeling isolated from your peers, can lead to a myriad of negative effects, from anxiety to depression, stress, and reduced physical health.
Tech has swept through our lives at an incredible speed. So, most people are still learning how to manage their tech use and how it affects their relationships.
To learn how to recalibrate your relationships by becoming more mindful about your tech use, check out episode 68 of the TFM podcast with Marygrace and Natalie Sexton and Bethany Baker:
What you can do about it
Your teen’s use of social can and should be regulated. But it’s virtually impossible to keep them off social altogether without it backfiring and pushing them away.
Instead, you want to build your child up so that they’re made aware of and equipped to deal with the challenges that social media poses.
So, first, take some time to actually talk to your teen about the dangers we talked about above. Mention the statistics and how the comparison trap works.
Then, you can take these steps to help equip them with the tools they need to properly manage their tech use.
Learn more about empowering your kids to manage the challenges of tech use for themselves in episode 45 of the TFM podcast with Jenifer Joy Madden:
1. Set up a tech contract
This is one of the simplest but most important steps you can take. Preferably, the moment they start going online.
What is a tech contract? It’s an agreement you establish with your child about when and how they can use their devices.
For example, you could include this in your contract… No smartphones:
- On vacation
- At dinner
- When out with family
- 2 Hours before bed
- During class
You could also limit their time on social media (as well as video games, the Internet as a whole) in general and set rules for how they can use their devices in other ways.
If you set this up early on, it will help teach them to establish boundaries and give them an example or framework for what healthy tech use looks like.
Just make sure you take adequate time explaining what the purpose of the contract is and why you’re doing it (for them, it’s a positive!).
For more on setting up boundaries with tech, check out this episode (55) of the TFM podcast with Caroline Castrillon:
2. Teach them self-love
Self-love is the opposite of the self-hatred teens develop as a result of the social comparison trap.
By developing self-love, your teen will be less likely to draw those same comparisons, and when they do, they’ll have much less sway over their perception of themselves.
To teach your teen how to deal with one of the most prevalent issues with regular social media use, engage your teen in one of any number of self-love practices such as:
- Loving-kindness meditation, or
- Regular affirmation
Really any practice here works that heightens their self-awareness and teaches them how to make friends with themselves.
It’s also important they know that we all feel inadequate sometimes. It’s human nature to feel like we’re not enough and part of their job as a human being going about their life is to step beyond those intrinsic notions of inadequacy to realize that they are and have always been enough.
3. Empower their own sense of competency
As part of the comparison trap, teens often see their peers or others such as certain influencers with the car they want, the house, money, clothes, or success and feel like they’re not smart enough or good enough to do what they’ve done.
It’s your job as their parent to not only tell them they’re amazing and talented and worthy but, to build them up so that they see it themselves.
Neuroscientist Ron Dahl told Greater Good in a recent interview that our self-worth is shaped more by our own experiences than what people tell us.
Instead of always telling them they’re great, then they go to school and get a C on their math test, show them what they can do.
One of the best ways to do that is to help them obtain what are called “mastery curve experiences”.
A mastery curve is when you work at something, struggle (even fail), then get better over time:
“A mastery curve creates one of the most solid supports for adolescents,” Dahl says. “And it’s rewarding, too. It’s part of the reason why kids who won’t spend three hours a day doing anything else will spend 14 hours a day playing video games.”
By encouraging mastery curve experiences, you’re reinforcing moments where they can show themselves that they’re strong, smart, resourceful, and capable. So, instead of you always trying to tell them, they know it themselves deep down.
Additional resources on managing tech use in kids and teens
While there are several real dangers of social media use we need to proactively help our kids navigate, there are several things you can do to manage those challenges and help them cultivate a healthier relationship with the Internet, social media, and their devices in general.
To learn more about how to manage tech use and how it’s affecting kids, check out these additional resources:
- How to Help Teens Build Their Self-Worth
- The Troubling Effects of Parents’ Screen Use on Children – And What To Do About It
- 3 Lessons from Nir Eyal on Building Positive Habits with Technology
- 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week
- 20 Apps To Help Stressed Parents Find Balance
- How to Manage Your Digital Environment – 6 Practical Ideas from Pete Dunlap
- How to Improve Focus: A Comprehensive Guide to Improving Focus in Work and Life
And to get more resources for helping you manage you and your kid’s tech use, join the TFM community email list, you’ll get our free guide on managing tech use and finding balance with simple mindfulness techniques as a gift: