Today, more than ever, teens are faced with many pressures. Parents worry about drug and alcohol use, peer pressure, texting and driving, among a host of other common issues.

However, one of the most common pressures that teens face every day involves social media use. In the era of COVID-19, social media use is arguably even more prevalent. I thought this might be an appropriate time to look at the impact of this social media use on the rapidly developing adolescent mind.

In a recent study by the Royal Society for Public Health, 14-24-year-olds were asked how social media platforms impacted their health and wellbeing. The results might surprise you – respondents said that Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all led to increased feelings of depression, anxiety, poor body image, and loneliness.

Before the days of rampant social media use, teens still found ways to entertain themselves socially, of course. However, the methods were different – hanging out with a group of friends, calling up a close friend just to chat, spending time releasing stress with family members.

While those things still may happen to various degrees, today’s teens are often masters at keeping themselves occupied. Often, when faced with free time, teens (and adults) will instantly turn to their phone for texting, updating their “status”, or seeing what their “friends” are doing. The fact is that today’s teens learn to do most of their communication while looking at a screen, not at another person. For example, have you ever seen a group of teens, or adults for that matter, in a restaurant sitting around a table staring at a screen and not talking to each other? This lack of face-to-face interaction can lead to modern teens missing out on common social skills that may help them in the workplace and in life interactions. There is also the concern about societal pressures, body image, and perception vs. reality.

Most of us, especially teens, live in a social media fantasy land. Instead of posting about how your day was, you post about how you want people to perceive how your day was. Teens are bombarded by their friends posting about how great their life is, how they are so popular, how everything is going so well – but this is not always reality! Adults see the same messages about their friends’ great marriages, perfect children, and incredible popularity, but adults are better at sorting through perception to find reality. Teens, oftentimes, can see their social media friends’ fantasy world and wonder why they aren’t so well-liked, so popular, so pretty, or why their posts don’t get as many “likes” as the popular teen. That can be a tough pill to swallow when you’re still trying to figure out where you fit in this world.

There are other issues as well – cyberbullying over a screen is much easier than in real life. Teenagers agonize over which photos will make them look the “cutest” online. Teens are tempted to post things they maybe shouldn’t post, all in search of the most “likes.” All of these issues can lead to risky behavior, poor choices, and lower self-esteem at a critical time in a person’s development.

That leaves us with the question, what can parents do? First, be the role model – limit your own screen time. It’s hard to tell your teen to limit their use when they see you plugged in all the time. Second, don’t forget that you are the parents. Check your kid’s phone for risky material. Get a monitoring program. Talk about the risks of certain behaviors and character while on social media. Third, delay use as long as possible. The reality is that younger children are not equipped to handle the pressures social media can bring. Delaying the use, or having a phone without internet access, can buy time for your child to develop capabilities to better handle those pressures. Finally, talk to your kids about values and character. Talk to them about what really matters in life, how social media is not reality, and challenge them to be a person of character and an encourager to others while online.

Being a teenager has never been easy, and that certainly rings true today. Technology has opened up a world of possibilities and potential, oftentimes both good and bad. However, with a little common sense, guidance, and “tough love,” we can all help teens navigate the struggles of adolescence with the right mix of freedom and boundaries.

Shaun Murphy is MU Extension’s County Engagement Specialist in Livingston County.