Use of the internet is a big part of teens’ lives. According to a 2018 Pew Internet and American Life Project survey, 95% of teens have access to a smartphone and 45% say they are online “almost constantly.” Social media along with gaming sites and instant messaging, allow teens to have 24/7 access to peer networks through cell phones and other mobile devices. That allows teens to extend the time they spend with people they already know — and sometimes with those they don’t.
For teens, social media platforms is 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.
Social media use
Mobile devices like smartphones, laptops, and tablets make the internet and social media easily accessible to teens.
The 2018 PEW report on Teens, Social Media & Technology reveals in addition to popular sites such as YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook, there are hundreds of others that appeal to specific groups or are used in other parts of the world, like LinkedIn, Twitter, WhatsApp, Reddit, and Pinterest.
In the United States, YouTube has become the most popular social media platform with 85 percent of 13 to 17 year olds using it, 72% use Instagram, 69% use Snapchat, 51% use Facebook, and it’s estimated that 69% of US teens are monthly TikTok users.
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.
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 a social media presence. With so many people and organizations using social media, teens make accessing social media to stay informed can feel like a necessity.
The internet provides many opportunities to teens for connection and information gathering. From the teen’s viewpoint, the internet is a place to “hang out.” When asked, teens told Common Sense Media the top five activities they use the internet for are:
- Going to websites about movies, TV shows, music groups or sports stars (81%).
- Getting information about news and current events (77%).
- Sending or receiving instant messages (68%).
- Watching videos on video sharing sites (57%).
- Using an online social networking site and getting information about a college or university they are thinking of attending (both 55%).
If teens need to find information, they look to the internet first. Access to a wide variety of resources helps them with school projects, as well as pursuing personal interests such as sports, and music. Looking at large amounts of data via the internet can enhance teens’ abilities to interpret and manipulate information. Other benefits include developing thinking and writing skills as they post to blogs or other online forums, and connecting with others to discuss shared interests.
Despite the benefits, social media is also filled with risk.
Just as parents are encouraged to monitor where teens are going, who they are with, and what they are doing, parents also need to be knowledgeable about teens’ internet activities, and talk with teens about the potential dangers of sharing personal information online (e.g., phone number, address, passwords).
The Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital 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 joke about a friend could get circulated around school, hurt the friend, and ruin the friendship.
- College admissions officers and employers might screen out applicants who post negative or questionable information on social media.
- Financial risk. Giving out personal information, parents’ credit card, banking, or other financial information could lead to trouble. If an offer appears to be “too good to be true,” then it probably is.
- Heavy users are at risk for problematic internet use and internet addiction.
- Inappropriate relationships. A teen may not realize that the 15-year-old boy asking to be an online “friend” is really a 45-year-old man. Teens may find themselves in online relationships for which they are unprepared.
- Frequent social media users report higher rates of depression, low self-esteem, and eating disorders.
- Social media exposes adolescents to alcohol and vaping marketing and information about the experiences of alcohol and vaping use by peers. This may normalize the behaviors and convince teens it’s okay to try alcohol or vaping. This may apply to other risk-taking behaviors such as marijuana and other substance use.
- Teens can experience cyberbullying on social media, either as a victim or bystander. Unmonitored social networking could provide a forum for messages that are indecent, demeaning, violent, or racist. Sometimes comments are misinterpreted or intentionally hurtful and the conversation can quickly turn into bullying or harassment.
What parents can do
Parents and caregivers need to know more about how social media works and how their teens are using these sites and apps. 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.
- 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 communication 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, even if you think it has been deleted.
- Work with teens to choose appropriate privacy settings for their social media. Social media sites provide tools for parents on how to set privacy settings. You can also visit Common Sense Media - the "Parents need to know" section - provides everything you need to know about social media, how different apps work, and how to set privacy controls.
- Stress that the rules of social media must be followed, including age limits. Let teens know you will be monitoring their online activities.
- 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.
- Installing protective software for blocking, monitoring, or filtering websites.
- Not allowing teens to sleep with their cell phone nearby. When teens are always connected, their rest will be interrupted.
- Paying attention to any behavioral changes that might be related to internet use. Signs to watch for include secretiveness, spending increasing amounts of time on the internet, inappropriate sexual knowledge, or sleeping problems.
- Monitoring teens’ online purchases, whether material or downloadable. Encourage teens to buy only from reputable companies.
- Parents can check what their teen does online and on social media by using web browsers’ history to check which websites their teen visited or checking their teen’s social media profile.
If parents discover their teen has visited an unacceptable website, it is important not to overreact. A conversation about how the website was found and what kind of information was being sought will help sort out the situation. For example, a teen may have accidentally found a porn site when seeking health information. Parents can help teens find credible, helpful websites and teach them to be critical consumers of information. The websites listed under “Related Resources” are a good place to start.
How parents can advise teens
In addition to establishing basic rules, parents should advise teens to:
- Never agree to meet someone in person they have met online. Teens need to talk with a parent or trusted adult first.
- Avoid chat rooms or discussion areas that look risky or provocative. Encourage teens to trust their instincts.
- Be wary of those who want too much information. There is no rule that says personal information must be given out.
- Log off, close a browser window, or navigate away if something online doesn’t seem right or causes uncomfortable feelings.
- Never give out passwords, even to friends.
Some parents may have challenges keeping up with their technologically savvy teen. Adults consider themselves more technologically capable than children perceive them to be. Teens can teach their parents a great deal about use of information technologies; this can be a good way for parents and teens to co-create family rules and expectations and interact with the teen as the expert.
Anderson, M. (2016, January 7). Parents, teens and digital monitoring.
Center on Media and Child Health. (2017). Social Media.
Lenhart, A. (2015, April 9). Teens, social media & technology overview 2015.
Lenhart, A., Madden, M., Smith, A., & MacGill, A. (2007, December 19). Teens’ online activities and gadgets.
Get Net Wise — Internet Education Foundation — Find articles on technology use from two blogs: “Connect Safely” and “Net Family News.”
Resources on Cyberbullying — KidsHealth, from the Nemours Foundation — Get familiar with the signs and effects of cyberbullying, as well as tips for how to help and what to do when your child is the bully.
Reviewed in 2021