Newshub headline with Children's Wisconsin logo
Dangers of social media and teenagers

Bad influences: Is social media harmful to your child?

Helping kids navigate the often turbulent and emotional teenage years is something I take great pride in as a child and family therapist. And social media is something that comes off often in my discussions with young adults. 

In 2021, was a report in the Wall Street Journal about how Instagram was harmful for teenage girls. 

“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the article said. 

It's so serious that in June 2024, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling for social media sites to have warning labels like cigarettes do. 

“The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency — and social media has emerged as an important contributor,” Murthy wrote. “Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms, and the average daily use in this age group, as of the summer of 2023, was 4.8 hours. Additionally, nearly half of adolescents say social media makes them feel worse about their bodies.”

Sadly, that’s not terribly surprising. But what can parents do to look out for their teens and reinforce a healthy body image? Here are a few explanations and behaviors you can watch for.

Why might Instagram and TikTok be worse than other platforms?

Unlike many adults, teen’s identities are still evolving — they are not yet stable and still subject to outside influences. Additionally, it’s human nature to compare ourselves to others, especially as teens work to form their identities. Add social media to this equation and it amplifies vulnerabilities. 

Instagram and TikTok are apps where users can share photos and short videos. These apps, along with others, often portrays highly edited and curated versions of appearances, experiences and products. Keeping up with new trends that go viral is greatly appealing to children, but it can also be damaging. Constantly trying to recreate a trend but not being able to reach this unattainable reality can cause feelings of inadequacy. Kids are disappointed when they fall short of what they are viewing every day.

Those feelings of constantly trying to attain an unattainable result can lower teens’ self-esteem and make them hyper focused on parts of their bodies or lives that don’t align with those images they see. Boys are vulnerable to this as well, but they don’t tend to be on social media as often as girls, which accounts for the greater vulnerability among young women.

Is my teen’s self-image being impacted?

Listen for information and pay attention to their habits, such as your teen taking 100 photos before posting, or overanalyzing their images in a way that seems distorted. As a parent, the more you show interest in their interests (even social media), the more information you can unlock from your child and guide them toward a healthier relationship with social media. 

What kinds of accounts are they following? Is it mostly celebrities or models that tend to share highly-edited images? It’s important for teens to look at body-positive or body-neutral accounts. The good news is there is a growing community dedicated to talking about relationships with body, body trust and self-love. Increasing exposure to this content is important and can be something you engage your teen in doing. 

Should I prohibit Instagram and TikTok?

I wouldn’t encourage banning social media access because, in most cases, this tends to lead to kids sneaking around for access. And, trust me, they will find it. I always say it’s better to know and monitor, and have on-going discussions than not knowing and risking them viewing content that could be detrimental. 

Parents can provide supervision by creating their own social media accounts and monitoring their child’s activity. It can also help model appropriate behavior as it relates to navigating the platforms.

This can lead to constructive conversations around how to make decisions about the content you post and emphasize the value of connection in healthy ways. 

How can you foster a conversation with your teen?

Parents can say something like, “I am curious what kinds of things I would have posted on social media at your age. What kinds of things do you post? What makes a post-worthy photo or video? How do you decide? What do your friends post that makes you ‘like’ their photos? Is there anything you come across that is alarming or worrisome?”

Reviewing the risks is important — “What if you are tagged in an embarrassing photo? What if a friend posts a photo you don’t like, how do you handle that? How do you decide what photos are appropriate to post of your friends?” It’s also important to go over what to do when a person you don’t know tries to add you, follow you or tries to reach out via direct messaging. 

Having these conversations is a crucial part of raising kids in today’s world. But it’s also important for parents to remember that social media is a key part of how kids connect to each other. It has the ability to support building friendships, sharing interests, exploring identities and developing relationships with family — and that’s a good thing.