There’s no question, the demands of parenting this generation of teenagers are unique, most notably because of social media. Social media has a dramatic influence on many young people and poses unique challenges for parents. We recently polled 2,000 current or recent parents of teenagers, in order to understand their most pressing concerns and challenges with social media, as well as trends in behavior exhibited by their children.
Like so many tools, social media can be constructive or destructive, depending on how it’s used. We acknowledge the merits of social media and the many ways it can enrich a young person’s life, but we’ve focused this investigation on the concerns it raises for parents, and how it can threaten a young person’s social and psychological well-being. As it turns out, those concerns are widespread. A full 58 percent of parents say they believe social media has a net negative effect on their children.
As we see it, the consequences of social media split into two broad categories: what social media takes children away from (sleep, face-to-face interaction, schoolwork, etc.) and what social media exposes them to (hate speech, sexual content, etc.). While all register as significant consequences, parents tend to be more concerned about what gets sacrificed when by the amount of time spent on social media. The top three concerns are: not getting enough sleep, not getting enough physical activity, and not focusing on schoolwork.
While our analysis is meant to consider trends that are many months or years in the making, we are also curious to understand social media dynamics unique to the COVID-19 pandemic. In early June 2020, we asked parents whether or not their teens were using social media more during quarantine. Not surprisingly, a majority said yes.
We also asked parents about specific platforms that concern them. The more popular platforms are the most concerning, with Instagram leading the way. The second most concerning platform is Snapchat, known for its “self-destructing” properties, meaning Snapchat messages - including pictures and videos - are only displayed temporarily and then erased by the app.
As mentioned, parents’ top concerns relate to how social media crowds out healthy habits and pursuits like education, exercise and sleep. Beyond that, there is notable concern among parents about how social media affects their children psychologically and socially. Consider these statistics:
Consider that last statistic alone: 67 percent have felt concerned their teen is addicted to social media. It’s hard to overstate the significance of that number. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, there are approximately 42 million adolescents in the US right now.
Imagine if 67 percent of parents expressed concern about a more classic, clinically-recognized compulsive behavior associated with addiction, like drug use, gambling, or sex. It would be declared a public health crisis of historic proportions. Granted, the term “addicted” is used loosely by laypeople to describe compulsive behavior that may not classify as clinical addiction, but even accounting for that, the scope of concern is remarkable.
“It’s important for parents to keep in mind, research on the correlation between digital technology use and adolescent mental health is still in its infancy, relatively speaking,” says Claire Coyne, PhD, Pediatric Psychologist in The Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Lurie Children’s. “One thing that stands out in recent research is that many of the early studies that inform public opinion of the effects of adolescent digital technology use have focused only on the negative effects and been based on weak correlational data (Odgers & Jensen, 2020).”
“In any case, we need more research to explore how social media engagement may be associated with positive outcomes: increase in self-esteem, perceived social support, and safe identity experimentation. Additionally, social media use may build digital and interpersonal skills necessary to navigate future jobs/employment.”
“Also, research has found the motivations for social media use vary widely: some adolescents primarily use digital technologies to develop close relationships, increase face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact, others are motivated to seek status/popularity or entertainment. For LGBTQ+ young folks in particular, social media can be space to find peers with similar experiences and interests.”
Fifty-two percent of parents we polled have at some point felt uncomfortable with the way their teen behaved or portrayed themself on social media. Of that group, the primary concern has been what the parents identify as a lack of privacy and tendency to “overshare.”
This sets up an interesting question: is the tendency of teenagers to share so much of themselves and their lives on social media objectively unhealthy, or is it just another shift in cultural norms creating generational tension over what’s considered normal and appropriate?
“Beyond generational differences, parents should also be mindful of age differences and how they may spur unnecessary judgement,” says Dr. Coyne. “During adolescence, the importance of peer relationships, concern about status among peers and identity exploration are all central developmental processes. The way that young people use social media as part of these developmental processes may be new, but not necessarily different.”
After assessing the variety of concerns parents have about behavior and development, we turned our attention to how parents respond to the challenges - how they parent in the age of social media.
In short, social media gets a lot of attention from parents. They set and enforce rules, and they’re largely satisfied with their efforts. Eighty percent of parents have set rules around the use of smartphones and social media, and 3 out of 4 say they’ve been successful enforcing them. Those are strong numbers, indicative of well-engaged parents.
In setting restrictions on smartphone and social media use, parents limit how much time teens spend on their phones, when they’re on their phones, and/or where they’re on their phones. One in three parents sets limitations on all three categories. Of the remaining two-thirds of parents, limiting total time on phones and social media is the preferred approach.
Half of the parents we polled (50%) have gone as far as censoring their teen’s social media posts, insisting that they remove something when the parent deems it inappropriate. More than half of the time, the content they censor is content they deem too sexual.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, parents have adjusted their stances on social media. Of those who normally set and enforce rules for social media use, 80 percent say they have relaxed those rules temporarily. Additionally, nearly half (46%) of all parents we polled report they are more appreciative of social media’s role in their teen’s life, during quarantine.
Most parents make it a habit to check in with their teens about their overall experience on social media. This is encouraging, and again reflects a class of well-engaged parents. Sixty-four percent check in at least monthly, while nearly one in three check in weekly or more. Almost half (46 percent) say their teen has at some point expressed frustration with his or her relationship with social media.
When we asked parents about the nature of their teen’s frustration with social media, the most common emotions cited were “anger,” “hurt,” and “depression.” It would be very difficult to distinguish how much of this is a direct consequence of social media, versus social media serving as a conduit and/or amplifier of what would register as normal teenage experience in any other era.
“One of the most important takeaways from this investigation is that we need more research to understand both positive and negative effects of social media use, and to explore the potential for new technologies to support mental health and well-being,” says Dr. Coyne.
“All screen time is not equal. We encourage parents to think less about the blunt measurement of screen time, and more carefully about how their children spend time on devices and what that means for their social development. Parents should consider whether or not online activities are enhancing social support and facilitating social connectedness versus negative interactions that focus on social comparisons and reduce time spent in in-person interactions.”
“We should also remember that young people use mobile devices to access forms of entertainment (e.g., movies, music, gaming) that have always been appealing to adolescents, and to communicate with friends. Adolescents’ online risk often reflects offline vulnerabilities, which means it is likely that many of the strategies that guide how we promote healthy development and effective parenting will apply when supporting youth in online activities and experiences.”
Between March 27 - June 16, 2020, we polled 2,909 Americans who are either current parents of teenagers, or were parents of teenagers in the past five years, where we define teenager as a child between the ages of thirteen and nineteen years old. Respondents were 56% female, 44% male, and ranged in age from 32 to 66 years old.
In instances where a parent had more than one teenager, we asked them to focus their answers in response to the behavior and condition of just one of their teenagers in particular.