The Dangers of Social Media for Teens

February 29, 2020 | 0 comments

When talking about the dangers of social media, cyberbullying and sexual predators get most of the press. However, there are many more subtle or hidden dangers of social media that are influencing a whole generation of teenagers as they become young adults.

With 89% of teenagers having a smartphone and 70% using social media multiple times a day, these digital dangers affect well-known and regular teens alike. In fact, 38% of young people reported that social media has a negative impact on how they feel about themselves.

If you are worried about your teen’s social media usage, this guide is for you.


The Benefits of Social Media

Before we dive into the dangers social media has for teens, it is important to recognize that these platforms can also offer immense benefits when used appropriately. Here are just a few:

  • It strengthens friendships & relationships. Networking sites can offer a sense of belonging and genuine support as teens connect with others around shared interests, challenges, passions, causes, and/or communities.
  • Social media can help teens express themselves creatively. We are living in one of the most innovative and creative times in human history. Social media provides amazing platforms for collaborating on and sharing creativity.
  • Using social media improves teen’s digital literacy, a required skill for almost any job today.
  • Collaborative learning – classroom discussion groups, YouTube tutorials, and online learning libraries provide teens with greater access to knowledge than ever before. From music to photography, from math to engineering, teens can learn almost anything they want.
  • Autonomy & Mastery – social media provides an outlet that allows them autonomy to demonstrate mastery and competency to their circle of influence.

Why Be Concerned? Putting Social Networking in Context

Did you know that over 210 million people worldwide suffer from social media & internet addiction? While you may want to blame your teenager for not having more self-control, it is important to realize what they’re up against. Social media platforms have thousands of Ph.D level researchers spending billions of dollars trying to figure out how to get users to spend more time on their platform. The more time your teen spends on social media, the more money the platform makes.

How Social Media Uses Dopamine?

Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, said it this way, “When Facebook was being developed the objective was: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” It was this mindset that led to the creation of features such as the “like” button that would give users “a little dopamine hit” to encourage them to upload more content. It’s a social-validation feedback loop…exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

“The capacity for so-called “persuasive technology” to influence behavior in this way is only just becoming understood, but the power of the dopamine system to alter habits is already familiar to drug addicts and smokers. Every habit-forming drug, from amphetamines to cocaine, from nicotine to alcohol, affects the dopamine system by dispersing many times more dopamine than usual.” (Click here for a more detailed explanation of how social media leverages dopamine)

The main thing parents need to understand is that without boundaries & outside help, almost every teenager has a chance of developing an unhealthy social media habit.


Teens are spending more than one-third of their days on technology and media sites


What Social Networks Are Teens Using?

When talking about the dangers of social media it is important for parents to know what social media sites your kids may be on. Among teens, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are the most popular. In addition to these, here are the most common types of social networking sites you should know about:

Statistic: Most frequently used social networks of teenagers in the United States as of September 2019 | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista
  • Texting, Messaging, & Chatting – In addition to sending regular text messages, your teen may also use Kik Messenger, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber, GroupMe, Discord, MeetMe, Yubo
  • Social Networking – Facebook
  • Microblogging – Tumblr, Medium, Twitter
  • Media sites for sharing photos & videos– Instagram, SnapChat, YouTube, TikTok, Pinterest, Vsco, Voxer, and Look
  • Live Streaming & Video Chatting – Bigo Live, Houseparty, Periscope, Live.me, YouNow, Marco Polo, Monkey, Omegle, Twitch, HOLLA, ChatLive
  • Anonymous social networks – “Anonymity doesn’t always breed cruelty, but it often does. On anonymous sites, people feel that their comments are consequence-free — and end up hurting others.” Some examples of anonymous social sites are: Qooh.me, Ask.fm, Tellonym, Whisper, Yolo, Lipsi
  • Dating tools – Tinder, Blendr, etc. Some of these site’s privacy policies allow teens as young as 13 to register.
  • Forums & Discussion Networks– Reddit, 4Chan, Amino, Quora. Referred to as the front page of the internet, these sites can be a great way to keep up on the latest trends, but they can also be home to unfiltered content and often brutal commentary.
  • Social Features of non-social media platforms – gaming sites like the SIMS, IMVU, and Fortnite all have built-in messaging tools

Check out this regularly updated guide for more current information on potentially dangerous social media apps


Immediate Dangers of Social Media

Here are some of the potential dangers your teenager may be exposed to while using various social media channels:

  • Exposure to inappropriate, upsetting, or adult-themed content

    Of course, you don’t want your teenager exposed to adult-themed or pornographic material. The danger with social media is that your child can be sent this material by strangers or by trusted sources. They may still be at risk even when your child’s social networking sites are restricted to only known friends, or when their profiles are set private.

    At least one in four teens are receiving sexually explicit texts and emails, and at least one in seven are sending sexts. More than one in 10 teens are forwarding these sexts without consent, the study found. And roughly one in 12 teens have had sexts they sent shared without their permission. (Reuters Health, Feb. 2018)
  • Teens practicing questionable judgment

    The prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for good judgment) is still not fully developed in teenagers. Poor judgment combined with easy access to a global audience can result in some scary situations:
  • Cyberbullying

    59% of U.S. teens have been bullied or harassed online with more youth experiencing bullying on Instagram than any other platform. And 1 in 5 young people having skipped school because they were victims of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying has been linked to teen depression, and can even result in increased vulnerability and depression into adulthood. It’s important to emphasize that your teen can talk to you if they feel they’re being bullied. On the other side of the coin, they should ask themselves, “could this hurt someone’s feelings?” before posting something. If it’s questionable, they shouldn’t post.
  • Strangers

    In this day and age, we hope that everyone knows that not everyone is who they say they are online. There are sexual predators, scammers, identity thieves, and hackers who exploit social media to trick unsuspecting users. Your 13-year-old daughter may be speaking with someone who claims to be a 13-year-old girl, but who is, in reality, an adult male. This is a lot easier to fake online than it is face-to-face, so your daughter may develop trust for a person online who they would be wary of in person. It’s important that teens don’t mention things online that will allow online predators to find them. Things like the name of the city where they live or the school they attend.
  • Erosion of personal privacy

    “Privacy equals control, and when a child posts a picture or a comment, they need to remember that they’re transferring control of that thought, feeling, special moment or image to all of the people that they are sharing it with, and there’s nothing to stop followers and friends from sharing it with others or even turning it into an embarrassing meme.” – Lori Getz, “The Tech Savvy User’s Guide to the Digital World.”
  • Distorted Perception of “What is Healthy” in Relationships

    People tend to share their relationship’s “highlight reel” on social media and rarely let people see the sad, hard, or heartbreaking moments. This constant exposure to only one side of relationships can distort your teen’s perception of what is healthy. Here are some patterns to watch for:
    • Constantly Comparing

      – by constantly comparing their relationships to all the “ideal” relationships your teen sees online, it can be easy to have a distorted understanding of what relationships are supposed to be like. Relationships are messy and hard, and often uneventful. Not many people in real relationships can spend 30 weeks a year traveling the world taking beautiful photos along the way.
    • Validation & enmeshment

      – Social media trains teenagers to put their worth in a continuous stream of external validation. Without having a strong system of internal validation, your teen may expect relationships to fill that void and can easily become dependent and enmeshed. Teens often don’t have the skills to become independent or interdependent in relationships.
    • Instant gratification

      – relationships are hard work. Unfortunately, today’s online social interactions set up expectations of instant gratification. Why work through a hard patch in a relationship with your next relationship is just a right swipe away?
    • Becoming Oversexualized

      – young teenagers, especially girls, quickly discover that their sexuality can be used for attention, and social media gives them a wider audience for that attention. Unfortunately, they often do not have the maturity to self- regulate. This often leads teens to base their self-worth on how they look. This objectification can cause eating disorders and other serious mental health issues.
  • Wasting Time

    When used in moderation, social media can be beneficial. Unfortunately, 44% of teenagers spend more than 3 hours a day on social media. If your teen cut their social media use in half, what could they accomplish? Do they have any dreams that they aren’t working towards? Could they be developing a hobby, interest, or passion that would contribute to their overall life satisfaction?
  • Toxic Culture

    The concepts of radical candor, speaking my truth, challenging preconceived notions, taken too far turn into just being mean. It is quite common to encounter people with a mob mentality on Reddit, 4Chan, and pro-ana sites. Without proper guidance on how to navigate these cultures, your child may become desensitized to bullying, sexism, and hate speech.

Teens who spend 5 hours a day on their phones are 2x more likely to show depressive symptoms


Long-term Risks of Social Media Overuse

Extensive use of social media can affect your teen’s personality in the long term. Some potential dangers include:

  • Depression, Anxiety, Suicidal Ideations

    It has been proven that too much time spent on social media sites leads to decreased well-being, depression, loneliness (2)(3), anxiety, low self-worth, and poor self-image. There are a couple of factors that may contribute to these trends:
    • External Validation

      – When your teen uses social media to validate themselves, they are basing their self-worth on likes and comments. Over time this
    • Constantly Comparing

      – Social media makes it easy to compare ourselves to one another. When your teen compares their life to friends’ seemingly exciting lives (the highlights of which are featured in their friends’ profiles), it is easy for your child to think of their life as humdrum and depressing. Comparing ourselves to others isn’t good for our mental health.
  • Decreased Emotional Sensitivity

    “[Social media] floods the brain with dopamine and conditions us to expect artificially high levels of the neurotransmitter. Over time, the user’s brain requires more dopamine…and it becomes dependent on [technological stimulation], which never actually satisfies the need it has created.” (Dopamine & Addiction).

    “[Social media websites] provide us with a virtually unlimited supply of social stimuli, both positive and negative. Every notification, whether it’s a text message, a “like” on Instagram, or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.”

    Sometimes the artificially high levels of stimulation can alter the brain’s sensitivity to the less intense stimuli of everyday life. Over time this decreased sensitivity can have some surprising results:
  • Underdeveloped Social Skills

    “interactions via social media make visitors feel connected without the difficulties and complexities involved in face-to-face interactions. Compared to interactions with computers, interactions with human counterparts require more emotional involvement, cognitive effort and brain activation. When we are not in the mood to exercise these resources, we too often choose the easier, virtual option.” (The Emotional Involvement Behind Social Media Interactions)

    Social and emotional skills are like any skill, the more you practice, the better you become. As teens choose easier, virtual social interactions more and more, they lose opportunities to strengthen their capacity for emotional involvement and practice social skills. Thankfully, research has shown that guided wilderness programs can help overcome these deficits.
  • Inability to Regulate Focus & Attention

    Frequent use of digital media can lead to a higher risk of developing ADHD-related symptoms. Please note that we are not saying that technology causes ADHD, rather an overuse of technology can mimic ADHD symptoms. Again, think of attention and focus as skills that can be practiced. If your teenager can only focus for 5 minutes before logging into Twitter, checking their phone for text messages, or to checking if they have any new social media followers, their ability to regulate attention will be severely underdeveloped.
  • Low Frustration Tolerance

    When numbing is your teen’s default response to feeling emotions, it becomes harder to build up a tolerance for stress or adversity. “Social media websites are like a virtual living room, filled with a curated group of people whom we feel comfortable with and want to be associated with. Experiences are chosen and executed according to convenience and levels of ease. Essentially, kids are learning to handpick experiences that they know they will be comfortable with and people (typically other teenagers) they are content to be associated with. But this is not real life, and when confronted with genuine, real-life experiences, they clam up and back away. And why not? Why force yourself to be uncomfortable when you don’t have to be?” (Understanding Teenage Anxiety: A Parent’s Guide to Improving Your Teen’s Mental Health)

Navigating the Risks of Social Media

There are a number of ways parents can navigate the dangers that come from using social media:

  • Get to the root cause

    Most of the hidden dangers of social media come from using it TOO MUCH. The first step in navigating the risks of social media is to figure out the primary reason why your teen spends time on technology.

    Problematic social media use is almost always triggered by an uncomfortable emotional state. The core of social media overuse is not wanting to be present in life because your teen feels that moment is too uncomfortable or painful to endure.
    • Understanding Internal Emotional Triggers – If you want to change the problematic behavior, start by figuring out what root cause is acting as an internal trigger. What are they running away from? What discomfort are they trying to avoid? Why can’t they be fully present in reality? Why are they self-soothing with technology?

      Your child may be feeling of bored, lonely, tired, uncertain, sad, angry, hurt, or frustrated. Or, they may be experiencing something more problematic like depression, anxiety, low self-worth, a lack of identity, or a lack of control in their life.

      Once you understand what is driving of the problematic behavior, address it, and help your teenager cope with the discomfort in a healthier manner. If you don’t address the underlying cause, your son or daughter can just find another way to ease their uncomfortable emotions, even if you block their favorite app or force them to quit social media.

      Most of the time your teen won’t even be aware of these internal emotional triggers. They just feel a rising tension they want to satiate, the same way they respond to hunger. Many adults struggle to be aware of their feelings so don’t be surprised if your teen isn’t aware of their own internal triggers.

      Help your teen by asking if everything is alright whenever they are on social media instead of participating in real-life situations. If there really is an emergency or something important, they’ll tell you about it. It there isn’t, the question can be a reminder to be aware of what uncomfortable emotions they are avoiding.
  • Help your teen develop a strong personal identity

    Teens with low social-emotional well-being, low life satisfaction, and who lack a personal identity experience more of the negative effects of social media than kids with strong personal identity, high levels of social-emotional well-being, and life satisfaction.

    Help your teen recognize their signature strengths and the everyday validation they get in their lives that doesn’t come from social media validation. A healthy personal identity, full of life satisfaction is like an inoculation, it provides social antibodies against the negative effects of social media.
  • Focus on the Relationship

    Teenagers are smart. No matter how many technological safeguards you put in place, there is always a chance they will figure out a way around them.

    The best safeguard against social media risks is building and maintaining a great relationship with your teenager. Start by having the conversation about social media is designed to keep you hooked, spending more and more time on their platforms. Discuss what they are opportunities they are sacrificing in order to spend so much time on social media. Talk with them about what they think their limits should be. Schedule time together to have weekly, & monthly check-ins and ask pointed questions. Here are a couple to get you started:
    • What’s your favorite thing about social media?
    • What’s the worst thing about social media?
    • What apps do you use? Why do you use them?
    • Will you show me how it works?
    • Tell me about who you talk with the most on social media?
    • What’s something that you found interesting on social media?
    • “I just need to double-check, but has anyone ever asked you to send them inappropriate pictures of yourself?”
  • Balance Digital Relationships with IRL Relationships

    As we said before, in-real-life relationships with your teenager is one of the best ways to counterbalance the negative effects of social media. Protect time for your family can practice those relationship skills. For example, you can make sure you regularly eat dinner together as a family and have everyone leave their phones in the other room.
  • Increase Your Tech Literacy

    Learn how to use the technology you already have. Set up parental controls on phones, tablets, computers, gaming systems, & routers. While you may want to limit your teen’s time on YouTube, you may want to increase how much time you spend looking for guides to your various devices’ parental controls.
  • In Extreme Cases

    If needed, go beyond just following your son or daughter on social media. If you feel like your teen may have a more serious problem misusing social media, regularly:
    • access their social media accounts together with your teenager.
    • double-check their direct messages, chats, & history. Some teens will set up finsta or fake Instagram accounts, so they can show their parents one thing and their friends something else.
    • It is important that as your teenager grows older that they are able to practice autonomy. 13 or 14-year-olds should have less autonomy than a 17 or 18-year-old. Find the balance that shows that they can gain your trust, but that you sometimes need to be protected from themselves.

Set Social Media Guidelines & Boundaries with a Family Media Plan

The logic behind a Family Media Plan is simple, as a family, establish guidelines and boundaries to make sure social media is a tool you use – not a tool that uses you.  Here are some things you may want to include in your Family Media Plan:

WHEN is it OK to use social media:

  • Agree on appropriate times of day, turn off electronics 1 hour before bed
  • Set time limits for recreational screen time, no more than 2 hours a day
  • Be intentional with your social networking and have a purpose EVERY time you check your social media accounts (I want to see how Brian is doing, or I want to see the photo’s Jodi posted from her vacation, I’m going to check the updates from my study group, etc.)
  • Periodically take longer breaks from technology to reduce stimulation tolerance.  While Dopamine fasting is a recent craze in the tech world, “fasts” from technology have been praised for decades.

WHERE is it OK to use social media:

  • not in bedrooms or bathrooms, in school, at the dinner table, or when talking to someone face to face.

WHAT is OK to POST to social media:

  • be respectful, be kind, if it’s not okay to say face to face, it’s not okay to say online. “Would I be OK with this photo/quote of mine being posting in the school hallways?”
  • Be authentic, be your true self
  • Engage, participate, create, and publish more than you consume.  Stop mindlessly scrolling and actually be social.
  • be cautious about sharing too much personal information online. (Link to how to digital security maintenance), don’t share passwords with friends, regularly check privacy & location settings, etc
  • Do not upload or share inappropriate messages, images, and/or videos
  • Think about the future – jobs, college applications, romantic interests, etc.  If you would be embarrassed to talk about the social media posts with your boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s parents, you might not want to post.
  • What Does it Say About Your Self-worth? Before posting anything, ask yourself why you are sharing it, what do you hope to get?  It’s okay if the answer is occasionally validation and connection. But if that is the answer 40% or more, you may want to build your self-worth in other ways.

WHAT is OK to BELIEVE on social media:

This may come as a shock to your teenager, but social media does not represent reality.  Take time together to browse various social media channels and see if you can identify the following:

HOW to stay safe and protect yourself on social media:

  • Teach your teen to block & report people they don’t know or who post upsetting comments or content.
  • Have them accept requests only from people they actually know,
  • take screenshots if you see anything upsetting and report them to moderators.

How Do I Know If My Child Needs A Professional Help?

When a teen’s social media usage is a bigger problem than families can handle at home, you may want to seek professional help.  Here are some signs to look for:

  • Lack of self-care/poor personal hygiene
  • Unhealthy diet/not eating regular meals
  • Sleep disturbance; staying up all night playing video games
  • Decreased academic performance
  • Lack of close, face-to-face relationships
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Impulsivity/irritability when not on social media

If you notice your child begin to pull away or show signs of depression, you should talk with them about it. If the situation appears to be getting out of control, seek help. There are programs out there that are designed to bring your child back onto the right path, like our Unplugged program.

Conclusion:

Social media can be a good thing. It allows your teen to stay in touch with friends and, if used correctly, boost self-esteem. There are, however, inherent dangers involved with social media which you should sit down and discuss with your child.  Make sure that social media is a tool your family uses – not a tool that uses your family.


Additional References





About Outback Therapeutic Expeditions

Outback Therapeutic Expeditions is the nation’s premier wilderness therapy program for teens struggling with social media, internet, gaming, & technology addictions.  Our Social Media Addiction Treatment Program provides the highest level of clinical care by embedding master’s level therapists in the field with each and every group. This highly sophisticated therapeutic method allows us to infuse evidence-based psychological practices and provide a state of the art, clinically informed model unlike any other wilderness therapy program.

Our innovative design allows for:

  • each department within Outback to be led by master’s level clinicians
  • every student works with more than 1 therapist with daily access to therapists
  • all families work with a dedicated family therapist
  • and purpose-driven adventure therapy is integrated into programming to focus on transition readiness.

Since our founding in 2001, our dedication to bringing families BACK together has helped thousands of young people gain a stronger sense of self, reconnect and re-engage with family, and get their lives back on track through a deepened sense of purpose. Please contact us today to learn how we can help your family.


About the Author

McKay Deveraux, Executive Director at Outback Therapeutic Expeditions

McKay Deveraux, MSW, LCSW, is the executive director of Outback Therapeutic Expeditions

McKay has over 17 years experience working with troubled teens in wilderness therapy. Before becoming the executive director at Outback Therapeutic Expeditions, McKay received his Masters of Social Work from Brigham Young University, worked as a field staff, field director, program director, and as a primary therapist at Outback.  He is honored to have served as Battalion Operations Sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves and is a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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