Teens are entering the chat around social media.
Adults often stress about the anxiety, self-esteem issues and social comparisons that teenagers may encounter on social media, but a new study is asking teens what they are actually experiencing online and how they see it in their lives.
“One of the things we really want to do with this larger work is bring teens’ own voices to the debate,” said the report’s lead author, Monica Anderson, associate director of research of the Pew Research Center’s internet and technology team. “This work really wants to shine light on: Teens are getting both positives from social media, but they’re also getting negative things as well.”
Researchers with the Pew Research Center surveyed 1,316 teens across the United States ages 13 to 17 from mid-April to early May. The youths were asked about their thoughts, feelings and use of social media.
“When it comes to new and emerging tech, teens are often at the vanguard of tech adoption,” Anderson said.
One theme of the survey’s results: Teens see their experience on social media as more positive than adults imagine it to be.
Only 27% said that their experience is even worse than their parents think — the rest said it was either about right or better, the survey said.
It makes sense that adult perspectives would be skewed, said Michelle Icard, a parenting educator and speaker and the author of “Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen: The Essential Conversations You Need to Have With Your Kids Before They Start High School.”
“Offloading their negative experiences with social media to parents is one of the ways tweens and teen cope,” she said via email. “Often, our kids report what went wrong in their day, in person or online, but they forget to come back and let us know when their issues resolved or stopped being painful. So, parents carry around worry long after kids have shrugged something off.”
The teens who responded to the survey said the good things they get out of social media include feeling connection and getting support from a community.
In total, 80% said social media gives them some level of connection to what is going on in their friends’ lives, 71% said it’s a place where they can show their creativity, 67% said social media reassures them that they have people to support them through tough times, and 58% said it makes them feel more accepted, according to the survey.
Black and Hispanic teens were more likely than their White counterparts to report feeling more accepted because of social media, the data showed.
Especially during the pandemic, the kids Icard worked with were grateful they could still connect with one another, she said. And if encouraged the right way, Icard has seen social media as a good way to showcase talents and humor.
And the teens tend to use it that way, the data showed. The top three things teens reported posting about were their accomplishments, family and emotions, according to the survey.
The survey participants were more likely to say social media is mostly positive or neutral for them personally, but they leaned in more of a negative direction when it came to its impact on people their age, the survey said.
“People might see a lot of benefits from technology and in this case social media,” Anderson said, “but are much more likely to see the downsides when looking at social media as a whole.”
This survey can be helpful to get an overview of social media and teens, but there are still individual circumstances and downsides to consider, Icard said.
For example, girls ages 15 to 17 were more likely than any other group to say that they don’t post things on social media because they are worried about being embarrassed, the survey said.
And girls more so than boys were likely to report feeling overwhelmed by drama on social media, the study said.
But all groups acknowledged downsides. Those who reported negative experiences attributed them mostly to screen time, mental health and the impact of online drama, the survey said.
And 60% of all teens report feeling little to no control over the data social media companies collect from them.
“Social media is a tool and as such, it’s neither all good nor all bad,” Icard said.
“You know your child’s temperament, social life, and experiences best,” she said via email. “Regardless of how the majority of kids self-report, your decision should take into account your child’s unique situation first.”
How do you optimize the experience for yourself or your child then?
Icard recommended a slow exposure, allowing children to join one social media app at a time and only expanding when they demonstrate sufficient responsibility to use them without damage to their sense of self.
“I also think parents should teach their kids app etiquette as well as safety,” Icard said, “and they should monitor more at the beginning but then (taper) off over time.”
Have conversations frequently about what is happening on these platforms. While you can give more autonomy over time, “a child who is unwilling to discuss their experiences on the app might not be ready for one,” she added.
Don’t begin panicking about having a teen on social media, as the experience comes with ups and downs just like any other part of life, Icard said.
“But if parents notice that social media creates feelings that are harmful to their adolescent’s sense of self,” she added, “it would be appropriate to consult with a therapist who can help with more positive self-talk and habits.”