Juhl: How does social media make teenagers feel? It's not all bad

“Youth will say that social media helps them gain a sense of community,” Université de Sherbrooke’s Caroline Fitzpatrick says.

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Social media is like a fast-running creek. It is refreshing and cool to stand in as long as you don’t lose your footing. And it’s very easy to lose your footing.

The rising waters of increased availability and affordability of portable screens over the past decade culminated in a full immersion during the pandemic. Around 95 per cent of teenagers report using social media, which encompasses everything from Instagram and TikTok to Reddit and Snapchat. Almost everybody is in the creek.

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“The marketing and some of the algorithms used by games and social-media networking sites are designed by people using the best knowledge, learning psychology and behavioural economics to make sure that these products are used in a high frequency and continuous fashion,” says Caroline Fitzpatrick, the Canada Research Chair in Digital Media Use by Children and an associate professor at Université de Sherbrooke.

It’s working. Teenagers say they are online constantly or almost constantly, and in some surveys have reported they feel like it’s too much, but have difficulty reducing time spent online.

Yet Fitzpatrick wants that information to be read in context. There is a positive side to social media use.

“Youth will say that it helps them gain a sense of community, and this can be very important especially for marginalized youth,” she says. “Those who are part of sexual minorities or ethnic and racial minorities say it allows them to access communities of support and interact with people. In a way, it might help them feel less marginalized.”

Most teens reference the connection they feel with their friends online.

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“Social media can help them explore their identity and creative sides,” Fitzpatrick says. “And in an important sense, it’s possible that it can help people access mental health services.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fitzpatrick and her colleagues followed adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17 for several years. They found that Internet use was a consistent predictor of depressive symptoms, particularly in girls. They researched whether time spent online led to depression or whether depression meant that the youth were spending more time online. They found it was the first.

This period of maturation leaves youth more sensitive to reward and peer acceptance as they work through the important job of developing their identity and self. Keeping our kids from drowning while allowing them to wade and explore is a daunting mission.

“If you’re spending three, four, five hours on social media, you have less time to play with friends face to face,” she says. There’s less time outside being physically active. Less time sleeping.

A common-sense limit of two hours a day is a reasonable part of a family media plan that might also include banning smartphones from the dinner table or bedroom and can be customized for each child. She recommends caution when setting boundaries: “The most effective interventions are not the ones where we tell adolescents what they have to do and how to use social media, but more the ones where adolescents are empowered to make their own decisions that will impact them in a positive way.

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“We need to encourage youth to think about their own habits in a self-reflective way. ‘What are the uses that help me feel connected to others? Help me learn new things? Help me express creativity? Which ones leave me feeling empty on the inside? Which do I use out of boredom?’ Youth need to be helped and encouraged and sensitized to make those kinds of distinctions.”

“Using a judgmental or critical tone is probably not the best way to develop a productive exchange. Keep in mind that what they express on social media is an extension of their offline identity. If parents or educators are very critical of that — or condescending or mocking — it’s most likely going to backfire as a strategy.”

Fitzpatrick says that by age 13, children should be able to understand how an app makes them feel. While scrolling through a feed like Instagram or TikTok, youth are more likely to compare themselves with an idealized version of their friends, influencers or celebrities. They tend to compare negatively, which can erode self-esteem and become a risk factor for depression.

Parents must give their children privacy and space but can also follow their kids on various platforms. If gaming is a concern, they can play with them.

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Red flags could include a child’s grades falling, a disinterest in activities they used to enjoy, and severe negative reactions when asked to end their screen time. If there’s a reduction in sleep, mood changes, irritability or symptoms of depression, parents can seek professional help by talking with their doctor or calling Info-Social at 811, Option 2.

“It’s OK for parents not to be equipped,” Fitzpatrick says. “There are people who are specifically trained for that.”

One of the most beneficial activities children can do in social media is to chat, she says. “A voice chat is ideal, but even a text chat is a lot more socially interactive. It’s active. Assuming they are constructive, positive interactions and not antagonistic, you can contrast it with scrolling.”

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