Social media is a place to keep in touch with friends and share the important moments of our lives. That’s the bright, shiny aspect of it, anyway, and it’s what we like to tell ourselves.
However, for teenagers, social media is also a bit of trap, as this recent Wall Street Journal article explains.
An Online Popularity Contest
Social media profiles don’t happen by accident, and they’re rarely depictions of real life. Instead, they’re carefully curated and maintained to create the image of an enviable life.
Teens strive for popularity online, and their posts are designed to attract maximum attention. The article mentions this study, which introduces the concept of “digital status seeking”: “the investment of significant effort into the accumulation of online indicators of peer status and approval.”
Those online indicators go beyond likes. Getting tagged in other people’s photos as well as shares, comments, followers, and even the follow ratio (how many people follow you compared to how many people you follow) all come into play.
And teens do what they have to do to get them.
- Spending more time making posts and browsing the newsfeed, a habit that can lead to digital addiction.
- Extreme editing of photographs to make themselves more attractive.
- Strategically posting during the busiest times of day to ensure more people see the post.
- Asking friends to like or comment.
- Buying likes and followers to appear more popular.
- Stretching the truth or flat-out lying about what they’re doing or what’s happening in their lives.
Girls are hit harder than boys: researchers point out that girls are more likely to compare their lives to what they see on social media, and their self-esteem can be impacted if they don’t feel like they measure up. The WSJ article also mentioned another study in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, which found that “several of the girls described the process [of maintaining a social media profile] as a lot of ‘work,’ but none of the boys described it that way, nor did they expect close friends to ‘like’ or comment on their posts.”
There is also ample opportunity for bullying and hurt feelings that carry over into a teen’s school and social life. For example, a friend might withhold her likes or comments if she’s irritated with you, thereby damaging your online popularity as well as the friendship.
But it doesn’t stop there:
“Multiple group path analyses indicated that for both genders, digital status seekers engaged in higher levels of substance use and sexual risk behavior 1 year later…. Indeed, research examining offline processes suggests that adolescents who are more oriented toward or invested in their peer status are at greater risk for a host of negative behaviors, including deviance and rule breaking, substance use, and sexual risk behavior.“
Hours spent on social media take time away from other essential activities, including homework and sleep. It creates a domino effect: less sleep can make your teen more grumpy and less attentive, which can impact his performance at school, which could make you introduce new rules or expectations about grades and behavior, which might erode your relationship if the struggle becomes the centerpiece of your lives.
Helping Our Teens Keep It In Perspective
You’ve probably experienced a taste of the social media trap yourself: have you ever started scrolling through a newsfeed and then wondered where the time went? Did you ever see a photo of someone and think, “Wow, I wish I had that dress/car/trip/life?” For a teen, this can become all-encompassing.
Here are a few ways to prevent your teen from getting caught in the social media trap:
- Real Life Validation: Teens, like the rest of us, want to feel loved, valued, and appreciated. They want to belong. Offer opportunities for this in real life so they’re not forced to seek all their validation online. This could come in the form of a sport or activity in which they excel in or a close family life. Every teen is different, and those years can be difficult (as you well know), but understand that the less included your child feels in real life, the more he or she will probably look for that inclusion online.
- Real Talk: The conversation about your child’s digital life should be open and ongoing. Include honest discussions about the nature of social media and how what they see is not only the best of the best of someone’s life, it may very well be altered to appear even better than it was. Explain to your teen how some people buy likes and followers to appear more popular. You can easily find examples of this and teach your child to do the same: look for Instagram users with lots of followers but a very small percentage of likes per post. If a user has authentic followers and likes, about one to three percent of followers will like any particular post (with some popular profiles going up to five or six percent, genuinely). If the percentage is exceptionally higher or lower, there are probably some fake likes and followers there. Click on the followers and notice how many of them have no profile picture or little activity on their own profiles. Check the comments for irrelevant remarks.
- Real Rules: Teenagers need guidelines when it comes to the internet, and it’s never too early to start setting some rules when it comes to mobile devices. Do your research and learn more about the many social sites available to your teen; if you find some that aren’t appropriate for your son or daughter, you can block them using trustworthy parental controls. You can also limit the amount of time your child spends online, which means less time on social media overall and more time with homework, family, or sleep.
We can’t keep our teens away from social media completely. They use these networks to build friendships, and their social life is partly online. To take that away would be to take away their connection to their peers. However, the risks are real, so as parents today we have to find the balance between the good and the bad of social media.