Teens and Social Media: 6 Essential Parent Tips

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor

Are you confident that your teen uses social media in a safe and healthy way?

So many of us parents are grappling with how to approach teens and social media use.

In this article I outline my advice about teens and social media including my 6 essential tips:

1) Understand the Risks and Pitfalls

2) Explore Healthy Ways to Use Social Media Together

3) Focus on Balance

4) Instil Healthy Habits

5) Limit and Monitor Time Online

6) Encourage Intentional Use of Social Media Sites

Social Media in the Real World

Whether we like it or not, we must acknowledge that social media will be part of our teenager’s social life.

Of course, we need to engage our kids in the ‘real world’ whilst recognising that for them, social media interaction is part of their real world.

Having 3 adult and teen girls myself, I’ve learnt that social media platforms aren’t all bad.

In fact, there are many brilliant and positive ways that teenagers and young adults can use social networking sites.

happy teen boy scrolling on his phone

That said, teens and social media can be a tricky mix. It’s problematic or negative when mis-used by this age group.

Parents and teens need an awareness of the adverse influence that social media use can have on mental health and well-being and learn about the relationship between social media use and self-esteem.

6 Essential Parent Tips

How to keep your teen’s experience of social media use safe and positive:

1) Understand the Risks and Pitfalls

And there are plenty, unfortunately.

Your teens will be educated about on-line safety at their high school, but don’t rely on this entirely.

Predatory behaviour is possible and far less detectable through social feeds. So, it’s imperative that your teenager has the correct privacy settings to help keep them safe.

The more time spent communicating through these platforms, the more likely kids are to be exposed to explicit content.

• Think of some potential scenarios and their consequences or use real life examples of situations that have been documented. Talk through the steps taken and what could have been done differently to avoid a negative outcome.

• Have ongoing conversations with your teens about on-line safety and the potential pitfalls they might encounter. Talk about what is OK to post on social media and encourage your teen to put in some personal boundaries. E.g.

 If you wouldn’t say it to the person face to face, then it’s not OK online.
 Be cautious about sharing too much personal information and regularly check privacy settings.
 Don’t upload inappropriate images or videos or unkind, unpleasant or hateful messages.
 Don’t believe everything you see or hear – much of the content on social media shows a selective distorted or fake reality.
 Block and report people they don’t know or are posting upsetting or inappropriate contact.

2) Explore Healthy Ways to Use Social Media Together

Your teen may not want to use Tiktok or Snapchat with you, but there are platforms which are more family centric.

On Instagram you could perhaps follow some of the same people or groups so you can have mutual conversations about what they’re up to.

Try out some collaborative learning platforms together.

Teens can learn about the world and together you can explore different views and perspectives.

Using platforms in an educational capacity can help teens discover areas of interest that they can pursue further.

3) Focus on Balance

Encourage them to develop a healthy balance of social media usage and other things that matter to them in their lives, especially focusing on real-life friendships and relationships.

The less time they spend interacting with real people, the more disconnect they may feel.

teen boy watching phone

Ensure you act as a role model by working on balance in your own life, too.

4) Instil Healthy Habits

If you can model these yourself, your teen will learn from you. Other family members can also be role models by:-

Taking a break! It can be really easy to get sucked in to scrolling through social media and before they know it, your teenager has spent an hour in the same position on the sofa. Social media can make some teenagers feel anxious or depressed so it’s really important to notice this and encourage them take a break.

Avoiding using social media before bedtime. The blue light from our mobile phone and other devices can affect our ability to get off to sleep and content may also mean that your teen’s brain is busy and active. Remember, good sleep hygiene is really important for teenagers – read more about this in our article about sleep problems in teenagers and pre-teens.

Never checking notifications while driving. Ideally put the mobile on silent for notifications.

5) Limit and Monitor Time Online

Teenagers need down-time and playing online might be something they like to do to relax.

Try not to be really strict to the point of them feeling resentful.

Instead, put in some boundaries that are agreed on both sides. A written contract can be helpful to provide clarity and consistency.

teenage girl using her mobile phone

The amount of screen time should be monitored though.

Some games are long and take concentration, so ensure that your teen knows to take breaks, keep hydrated and limit the time they are shut-away.

Devices should not be allowed in your child’s bedroom as you can’t monitor use, and your child needs at least one tech-free zone.

I know this can be hard in practise, but I believe technology in the bedroom can be a major contributor to poor mental health so do try to stick to your guns.

Too much time on social media over extended periods can lower self-esteem as your child may begin to feel a disconnect from the real world.

6) Encourage Intentional Use of Social Media Sites

Talk to your teen about having an awareness of having a real purpose for using social media. For example, ‘I want to check in with Abbie and see her photos of her prom’ or ‘I’m going to check the updates from my study group’.

How Does Social Media Affect Teenagers?

Negative interactions can lead to confusion, upset and resentment and sometimes, harmful behaviour such as cyberbullying and trolling.

Social media effects can contribute to mental health problems.

Teens and social media are a complicated mix.

• Teenagers want to be independent, but still require nurture.
• They want to fit in and have positive social interactions but this can be challenging.
• They want to have complete control over their image, but can face societal and peer pressure.

teenage girls at home discussing social media

Teenagers aren’t always in tune with the impact words and actions might have on others, either directly or indirectly.

Communication with peers on social networks can often be a challenge.

Words can have a long-lasting effect on other people and relationships. The tone of the message can be difficult to convey over text.

How Does Social Media Affect Teenagers’ Mental Health?

Platforms such as Instagram and Facebook often present a picture of perceived ‘perfection’ with amazing images which teenagers may try to copy.

Looking for validation of their own persona, the number of ‘likes’ or comments will feed straight into how they are left feeling.

But, unrealistic expectations can only lead to disappointment and negative feelings.

Social media comes with its problems…

Studies into the impact of social media use on the mental health of young people indicate that social media use correlates to an increased risk of mental health disorders such as:

 Depression
 anxiety disorders
 low self-esteem
 Body dysmorphia

a boy in a school corridor looking at his phone

The Royal Society for Public Health in the UK reported that children who spent three or more hours on social media in a day had a higher risk of mental health issues, such as anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Keep a look out for changes in your teenager which might indicate a dip in their mental health and wellbeing:

• Introverted or secretive behaviour.
• Low-mood, feelings of anxiety or a short-temper.
• A fear of failure.
• Disengagement from things they usually enjoy doing.
• Apathy or a loss of joy.
• A change in sleeping and/or habits.
• Isolating from family and friends.
• Declining school grades.
• Constant comparing and expressing feelings of inadequacy.

If you are worried, talk to your teenager about your concerns. They may benefit from some help from a mental health professional.

There are a number of therapies which can help including counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy.

Also take a look at Dr Lucy Russell’s article on 6 Keys to Parenting Teens Who Flourish.

How Social Media Affects Teenage Self Esteem

Healthy self-esteem matters for teenagers.

At this stage of development, self-esteem can rely heavily on peer interaction and what people think or say about them (external validation).

Some studies suggest that social media use influences low self-esteem and can be more addictive than alcohol or cigarettes.

Access to the internet and social media platforms is available 24-7 and for teenagers who are still not fully aware of who they are, they can end up going down all sorts of rabbit holes.

close up of a teenager with various piercings

Social comparison is everywhere. This can put continuous pressure on a teens’ self-esteem leaving them feeling as though they are lacking or ‘not enough’.

Recent research suggests that girls aged 11-13 and 19 are most susceptible to social media and this can negatively affect their life satisfaction.

For boys, the most susceptible ages are 14-15 and 19.

If your teenager is having a difficult time, try to encourage an open conversation about what it’s like for them, and make sure to listen.

Teens and social media can be difficult to fathom for parents, it’s like trying to understand another language, so be patient and hear what your teen has to say.

For tips on listening skills read our article: Listening Skills For Parents – 6 Top Strategies.

Does Social Media Cause Body Dysmorphia?

Social media doesn’t cause body dysmorphia. However, if someone is already sensitive about their body image it can exacerbate their feelings.

Sadly, the impact that social media has on body image and beauty standards isn’t usually positive.

Curated photos lead to social comparisons about physical appearance, beauty body types and some teenagers can develop a negative body image.

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a mental illness which is characterised by persistent preoccupation with an imagined or perceived flaw in face or body appearance.

a teenage girl in sports clothing

Body dysmorphia affects both girls and boys, but is most prevalent in young women.

Often, individuals with BDD will display other mental health conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder, depression or anxiety.

People with BDD typically fear gaining weight and can go on to develop other eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia.

These disorders can harm a person’s physical and mental health.

They can lead to a person undertaking demanding exercise regimes or to look to plastic surgery procedures as cure-alls.

BDD can be treated but a professional diagnosis is essential with treatments including CBT, anti-depressants and other talking therapies.

If you or your teenager are worried, visit your doctor to request a referral to a mental health professional.

Seven Negative Effects of Social Media

In my clinic, I often hear young people, (especially young girls) express that they don’t feel ‘good enough’.

When they already feel like this, social media can amplify what other people have and how much better they are than them causing them to feel worse about themselves.

7 Negative Effects of Social Media on Teenagers (You May Know of Some More)

1) Social comparison can cause mental health and self-esteem issues.
2) Negative impact on family relationships and friendships. Too much time on social media reduces face-to-face interaction.
3) FOMO (fear of missing out).
4) Distracts from life goals.
5) Reduces motivation.
6) Increases risk of encountering bullying (Cyberbullies).
7) Can contribute to body image issues.

Positive Impact of Social Media on Youth

There are numerous potential benefits for teens using social media sites which can have a positive impact on different aspects of their lives when used wisely.

tween girls looking at a phone

7 Positive Effects of Social Media on Teenagers (You May Know of Some More)

1) Builds and strengthens relationships by staying connected. Especially with family and friends who don’t live nearby and who they can’t see face to face regularly.
2) Helps them to find their voice and encourages personal expression.
3) Allows them to show empathy and kindness to others and through positive feedback, develop these skills.
4) Offers support through tough times and can reduce feelings of isolation when feeling marginalised.
5) Can help young people to build a business or on-line brand.
6) Works as an encyclopedia of knowledge.
7) Provide sources of inspiration in campaigning for social good and can help teens to raise awareness of a cause or charity they are invested in.

Social Media Risks

I was shocked to see these statistics.

According to Common Sense Media, 42% of children in the UK have a smartphone by the age of 10.

By the age of 12, it’s 71% and by age 14, it’s 91% (30th Sept 2022).

This doesn’t, however, tell us if all these kids are on social media sites at this age.

Social media users will find that platforms place a lower age limit restriction for joining, but some kids just find ways around this.

Age restrictions are there for a reason as there are some very real risks to using social media platforms. Parents have a responsibility to ensure that their children are not allowed to have access to social media until an appropriate age.

The Use of Social Media Can Expose Teenagers to the Following Risks:

• Predatory behaviours.
• Sexual exploitation and other grooming.
• Fake news and mis-information on their social media feed.
• Social media filters.
• Scams and hacking.
• Cyberbullying and trolling.
• Invasion of privacy.
• Identity theft
• Exposure to offensive images and messages.

You know your child best.

How “internet-savvy” are they?

Could they spot a potential predator?

Remember, it is not your child’s actual age that should determine how much you monitor their social media use. A 17 year-old might be highly vulnerable and unable to spot dangers, whereas a 13 year-old might be savvy and cautious.

Consider your child’s emotional development when figuring out how much direct guidance they need from you.

Teens and Social Media: Summary

In recent years, we have learnt much more about the impact of the relationship between teens and social media.

Remember, social skills are a really important part of a teenager’s development and whilst they will inevitably use these skills online, they need to be encouraged to develop them in the real world too.

If you want to read more about deepening trust with your teen and setting clear boundaries, take a look at Dr Lucy Russell’s top 10 books on parenting teenagers.

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Hayley Vaughan-Smith is a Person-Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling & Psychotherapy Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.

Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care for four years.

Hayley is mum to 3 grown up girls, and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.

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