Helping Teens Establish Good Social Media Habits

Adolescence is both a time of critical brain development and high social media use. Adolescent brains are going through the most development and reorganization, second only to infancy, making them more susceptible to environmental influences. As a result, many doctors and parents wonder how social media will impact this generation. In today’s blog we examine the results from two recent studies examining social media use among adolescents and how caregivers can help teens establish healthy boundaries around their social media use.

A new study published this month in JAMA Pediatrics shows that frequent use of social media is reshaping how adolescents’ brains develop. The study conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of the first long-term studies on adolescent neural development and technology use. Researchers, using annual brain scans over a three year period, discovered that, for youth who habitually check their social media, the brain is changing in a way that is becoming more and more sensitive to social feedback over time. Social media is filled with ways to get feedback from peers, whether it is through the excitement of a like on a post or criticism from a mean comment. Researchers noted that it’s not clear whether greater sensitivity to social consequences is a good or bad thing. For example, it could lead to anxiety and/or compulsive behaviors, but it could also lead to a neural change that allows teens to adapt and better navigate an increasingly digital world. Either way, social media is rewiring our children’s brains.

In Spring 2022, researchers with the Pew Research Center surveyed almost 1500 high school students about their thoughts, feelings and use of social media. Interestingly, teens see their experience on social media as more positive than adults imagine it to be. Only 27% said that their experience is worse than their parents think. According to the survey, 80% said social media gives them some level of connection to what is going on in their friends’ lives, 71% said it’s a place where they can show their creativity, 67% said social media reassures them that they have people to support them through tough times, and 58% said it makes them feel more accepted.

Social media is clearly impacting our youth in a variety of ways. The best thing that caregivers can do is try to help their teens establish healthy habits around social media. We want to enhance the positive experiences they obtain through using social media use, while minimizing negative impacts on their self-esteem, mood, relationships, emotional health and safety. Here are some ideas:

  • Be intentional. Ask your teen what purpose social media has for them? What are they hoping to do, feel, and/or accomplish by using these apps? Once they’ve determined their intention, ask them if they currently feel they are meeting that purpose, goal, or feeling?  If not, encourage them to identify ways they can make changes to their usage that will improve their experience.
  • Take regular breaks from social media use. Breaks allow teens the opportunity to connect with others in person, feel more present and get relief from the constant flow of information and feedback. Your teen must decide what type of break will work best for them. Perhaps they need to establish a daily time limit to check social media or designate a certain day of the week as a “no social media” zone. There are lots of ways to get a much needed break from these platforms.
  • Create rules around certain circumstances. Sometimes it helps to create some rules to govern specific behaviors. For example, your teen should consider placing their phone on silent mode and turning it upside down whenever they are sharing a meal with someone or if a friend or family member is experiencing a crisis and/or needs their undivided attention.
  • Clean up social media accounts every three months. Encourage your teen to evaluate their account quarterly. They should delete and archive the posts they don’t want public, update any outdated information on their account, unfollow people who are no longer meaningful in their life, and also block a few contacts whose messages, interactions or comments generally leave them feeling angry or sad.
  • Wait to respond. Our digital world has created an expectation that we need to respond to people’s messages and comments right away. This is a false requirement, and we do have a choice. Ask your teen what might work best for them to reduce stress, avoid feeling overwhelmed, and also prevent responding in an emotionally charged way to others’ comments. You can suggest they might try turning off notifications or establishing a certain time of the day for catching up on comments as a way to stop the constant flow of information.

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