The Social Impact of Social Media on Teens
Social media impacts how teens look at friendship and intimacy in profound and sometimes disturbing ways. Internet culture pushes them to pursue likes, shares, comments, and retweets as a path to social connection. The problem with this phenomenon is that those virtual interactions give an illusion of connection, prestige, and approval when no real-world connections, prestige, or approval actually exist. Teens obsessed with social media might believe they have hundreds, or in some extreme cases, thousands of friends and/or followers, but the fact is that there is no direct correlation between the number of online friends they collect and the quality of true friends they have in the real world.
Teens who rely on social media as their primary means of social connection often find themselves feeling isolated when they’re offline. This confuses them. They’re mystified by the fact they have huge numbers of friends on Facebook and followers on Instagram, but not one person in real life with whom they can authentically share their struggles, fears, and dreams.
Peer Pressure and Social Media
Sure, there are success stories of those who managed to monetize online attention, like Justin Bieber and a variety of other famous teens and teeny-boppers who made it work. However, with the rise in popularity and widespread use of these platforms, the goalposts moved. 1,000 likes used to be amazing, but now it takes at least 100,000 to get the same shine. Then there are media supported figures—some of whom illegally obtain views and likes—with whom the typical high school student simply can’t compete.
But they do try to compete, and don’t realize they’re on an empty path that leads to loneliness.
They believe the lie that intimacy, popularity, and even fame is possible through online social media platforms or blogs. Marketers prey upon them by reinforcing the idea that if they like something and build a following, they too can achieve fame. Get the best Instagram photo at the One Direction concert and win a chance to live like a star for a day. When this doesn’t happen, they end up puzzled, empty, and angry.
Impact on Social Life, Identity, and Personal Development
Since adolescents spend a disproportionate amount time and energy pursuing validation and connection online, less and less time is available for activities that help them feel more connected and alive, like physical activity, involvement in the arts, and other extra-curricular activities. Get inside their heads for a minute. When an adult tells them online validation is not real, here’s what they think inside:
Who needs achievements at school or in personal pursuits to feel accomplished, if the likes online say I’m already liked and appreciated?
Why work to communicate when I can LOL in chat or text super-easy?
Why struggle to talk about my feelings or emotional pain when a smiley-face emoticon makes everything seem okay?
Entire social, emotional, and psychological lives are built up and broken down at lightning speed on social media platforms. Kids can go from zero to hero and back in the time it takes to eat lunch. There’s intense pressure to perform for likes, and getting more likes than anyone else is a primary goal for many teens. In the world of social media, there’s neither a moderator nor a real-world basis for the criteria by which social media-obsessed adolescents define themselves. As teens opt for efficiency of communication over intimacy, they are left feeling invisible, unwanted, and ultimately, unloved.
The virtual community leaves very little room for real-world development, exploration, growth, and achievement. The goals are different, and so are the outcomes. A teen preoccupied with the virtual world might display the following characteristics:
- Difficulty focusing on homework
- Reluctance to engage in family activities.
- Inability to engage in face-to-face conversation
- Resentment, anger, or outright rage when asked to unplug and be present
The Internet and social media in and of themselves are not bad things, but when they completely dominate a teenager’s life, they eclipse opportunities for authentic intimacy and personal growth. The Evolve Team believes the world of internet and social media interactions need to be harnessed in a way that enhances life, creates positive real-world outcomes, fosters learning, and, at the end of the day, produces results that move a teenager forward in life.
EVOLVE Tips for Mitigating the Negative Impact of Technology
- Teach by Example. Any parent, teacher, or person who works in a position of authority over children knows they’re more likely to do what you do, not what you say. Which means the most important thing is to model the healthy use of technology. Do not check texts, emails, or social media while you’re supposed to be spending quality time with your child. Of course, there are exceptions for urgent work matters and other pressing issues. If you must answer a text or email during a family dinner, be clear with yourself and your child that it’s legitimately urgent. Every time you choose your phone over your child, you send the powerful message that the thing you’re responding to is more important than them.
- Schedule Tech-free Time. Set a day every week as a family to unplug and live without your electronic devices. Yes, that means everything. Don’t worry. The world will not fall apart if you don’t check your texts or emails for a day. If a whole day seems like too much, then start with a few hours. Go to an outdoor café for brunch. Have conversations with one another rather than clicking, swiping, and thumb-typing. Go to the beach. Feel the warm sand under your feet. Go to the park and lay on the grass. Cloud-gaze. Get bored and explore a creek. Be present with yourself, your loved ones, and with the natural world.
- Remove Temptation. Try this for a house rule: place a basket by the front door, and when your teen has friends over, make everyone put their phone in the basket. Why? Because it’s impossible to connect if everyone is staring at their phone. Don’t worry about what they’ll do. You figured it out when you were a teenager, and they can, too. Just watch—they’ll end up out riding bikes, exploring the neighborhood, going to the mall, and sure, maybe even getting into a little trouble now and then. All those things—even the odd mishap—is far better than sitting on their butts and staring at their phones for hours on end.
Don’t Fight the Future
There’s no sense in fighting the future, because it’s here. Social media and the internet aren’t going away. Responsibility falls to parents, teachers, and caregivers to teach children what’s real and what’s not. Adults need to act as gatekeepers and shepherds of the media experience, and keep kids active and engaged in the world. When kids transform into teenagers without knowing what it feels like to be in nature, without understanding what genuine human interaction looks like, and without the skill to simply converse face-to-face with new and different people, they’re easily led astray by the instant gratification and validation offered by likes, shares, and hundreds of virtual friends and followers. Teach them what’s important: the real world and the real people waiting outside the window, past the laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.