By Neil McNerney, Parenting with Purpose
Most teens are social beings. We’ve known this for decades. It’s a part of our nature as humans. The social unit is very important for us. It’s used to be essential for our physical safety and ability to thrive. When we were more of a tribal species, we knew each person in our tribe, because our tribes were only about 35-50 members. This made it easy to know everything about each other and led to a shared workload and the ability to look out for each other.
Through the millennia, our social networks have grown considerably, but they still tended to be people that we personally interacted with on a regular basis. For teens, this tended to be other teens in our neighborhood, at school, on teams, and our places of worship.
Enter social media. Suddenly, a teen’s social network explodes from a few dozen peers to a few thousand. In less than a generation, the idea of social connections has completely changed. At its surface, this could be a very good thing for teens. They can easily learn about teens different than themselves. They can learn about new cultures, languages, music, and art. The positive possibilities are endless.
Although there might have been a few benefits to this, it is very clear now that social media, namely Instagram, is not beneficial to our teens. It is especially harmful to our female teens.
New documents from Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, reveal that Instagram makes body image issues worse in at least 1 in 3 teenage girls. Boys are also affected, with the same internal study showing that 14 percent of boys report that Instagram makes them feel worse about themselves. Most alarming is that those teens who reported suicidal thoughts, between 6 and 13 percent of users traced their suicidal thoughts to Instagram.
These figures are alarming. No other social phenomenon has had such a negative emotional effect on teens. Many teens will focus hours of energy on taking the perfect Instagram photo, and then monitoring the number of likes it receives in a short period of time. If the number of likes isn’t enough, they will take down the photo to avoid embarrassment. It is not just the fact that the photo must be perfect, it also must earn enough likes. Almost as embarrassing as a bad photo is a low number of likes.
This leads to significant anxiety and constant comparison with the like count of other peers. They are comparing “like counts,” seeing who is liking which photo, and what comments are happening on what photos. Rarely is any of this pleasurable. They are constantly comparing those perfectly edited and curated photos of their classmates with their reflection in the mirror. Rarely does the reflection win.
So, what do we do to help our teens navigate this minefield? This simple answer, of course, is to not allow them to have Instagram. Easier said than done. Since so much social interaction now occurs on Instagram, taking it away from a teen might in fact do unintentional harm. It may lead to increased isolation and sadness due to missing out on what is happening with their peer group. It would be like our parents telling us that we could not use the phone to talk to friends when we were teens.
I would suggest that you keep the lines of communication open. Have discussions about their thoughts on how Instagram is affecting their mental health. Ask them if it affects their feelings about themselves. Showing an interest in their lives is always a good idea.
Should you have password access to your teen’s phone? Yes, I think so. Should you review their accounts from time to time? I think it would be better safe than sorry. Just knowing that Mom or Dad will be checking their phone from time to time often keeps teens on the safer side of things.
I am hopeful that the more we know how our teens are influenced, the more helpful we can be in keeping them both physically and mentally healthy.
Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org