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LOL, IDK, OMG: Teens and social media platforms

This fact sheet is part of the Teen talk: a survival guide for parents of teenagers series.

For teens, social media platforms are an everyday part of life. Parents may benefit from learning more about these platforms and the ways they influence the lives of their teens. By being informed, parents can make the best decisions about monitoring their teens’ social media use and equipping them with skills to navigate these platforms with care.

Popular social media platforms

The 2015 Pew Research Center’s Teen Relationship Study reveals that seven out of ten teens use more than one social media platform. In addition to popular sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, there are hundreds of others that appeal to specific groups or are used in other parts of the world, like LinkedIn, YouTube, WhatsApp, Reddit, and Pinterest.

In the United States, Facebook is still the most popular social media platform with seven out of ten 13 to 17 year olds using it. Instagram is second most popular, used by 51 percent of teens, and Snapchat is third, with 41 percent of teens using it.

Mobile devices like smartphones, laptops, and tablets make the internet and social media easily accessible to teens.

Why are teens attracted to social media?

Teens’ developmental needs match well with what social media has to offer: developing friendships, figuring out their identities, and establishing social status by being “in the know.” For example, it is typical for teens to try on different identities based on pop culture. According to danah boyd, a technology and social media scholar, curating an online persona can be a way to try on an identity, test an image, and get feedback from others.

Maintaining existing friendships is reported as one of the most common reasons for using social media. As today’s teens grow up, they view social media as an online place to “hang out” and connect with friends around mutual interests.

Teens are not using social media in isolation. Consider the world in which today’s teens are growing up. Entertainment, sports, and political celebrities live out their lives in the focus of public attention. Ordinary people become celebrities through reality shows on television or a viral social media post. Schools, universities, news outlets, and companies all have presences on social media. With so many people and organizations using social media, teens make consider accessing social media a necessity to stay informed.

When social media is helpful

Teens are growing up with and making social media an integral part of their lives. Engagement with social media might lead teens to:

  • Figure out the rules of social interaction
  • Maintain in-person friendships
  • Learn more about their own and others' specialized interests

In addition, researchers in Australia found that teens with disabilities may experience greater ease in socializing on social media versus in-person.

When social media is harmful

The Center for on Media and Child Health notes that frequent social media use among teens has been linked to poor academic performance and other potential negative consequences:

  • Information teens think would only be of interest to their friends can get in the hands of others and produce unintended negative results. For example, a discussion about a teacher could include unfounded accusations that could be damaging to the teacher and to the teacher-student relationship.
  • College admissions officers and employers might screen out applicants who post negative or questionable information on social media.
  • Heavy users are at risk for problematic internet use, e.g. internet addiction.
  • Frequent users report higher rates of depression, low self-esteem, and eating disorders.
  • Social media exposes adolescents to alcohol marketing and information about the experiences of alcohol use by peers. This may normalize alcohol consumption and persuade teens to try alcohol. This may apply to other risk-taking behaviors such as smoking and other substance use.
  • Teens can experience cyberbullying on social media, either as a victim or bystander.

What parents can do

Parents and caregivers need to know more about how social media works and how their teens are using them. The best way to learn is to set up your own profile. Most social media platforms have an age requirement of 13 before teens are allowed to create their own profiles. When your teen creates a personal profile, make sure you are on the same platform so you can monitor his or her activities.

Here are more tips:

  • Engage in ongoing conversations with teens about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect, avoiding cyberbullying and sexting (sending sexual explicit photographs or messages), being wary of online solicitation, and avoiding communications that can put personal privacy and safety at risk.
  • Ask them for help in navigating your own internet journey to learn how much they know about the virtual world.
  • Be clear about what is unsafe to post: full name, address, specific places they go, phone numbers, vacation plans, or anything else that would help someone identify or locate them.
  • Remind teens that strangers and people they don’t want accessing their information may have the ability to do just that. Once something is posted on the web, it is no longer private.
  • Work with teens to choose appropriate privacy settings for their social media.
  • Stress that the rules of social media must be followed, including age limits.
  • Actively develop a network of trusted adults. These family members and friends can engage with teens through social media, and your teen can turn to them when they encounter challenges.

Related resources

The Teen Years ExplainedClea McNeely, PhD and Jayne Blanchard — This e-book can help both teens and adults to understand developmental changes and tips for how to apply this knowledge to your everyday life.

Pooja Brar, doctoral candidate in Family Social Science

Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and professor in Family Social Science

Colleen Gengler, Extension educator, emerita in Family Development

Reviewed in 2018

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