Social Media: What Teenagers Think and What Parents Don’t Know
Good morning. It’s Thursday. The surgeon general says social media carries a “profound risk” for young people. We’ll see how teenagers in New York reacted to his warning.
The surgeon general of the Public Health Service issued a public advisory this week, warning that social media can harm young people. Adolescents “are not just smaller adults,” the surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy said. “They’re in a different phase of development, and they’re in a critical phase of brain development.”
He sounded the alarm in a 19-page report that recommended that families keep mealtimes and in-person gatherings free of devices. He also said that tech companies should enforce minimum age limits “in ways that respect the privacy of youth users” and see that default settings for children “are set to the highest safety and privacy standards.”
I spoke with our education reporter, Troy Closson, who with several colleagues sampled the reactions to the report among children and teenagers in New York.
The surgeon general’s report said social media can harm the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents, but it also said the effects of social media on adolescent mental health are not fully understood. The research is inconclusive and somewhat contradictory.
That’s one of the challenges.
Teenagers themselves will tell you there are drawbacks to social media. They talk about having bad experiences with cyberbullying or dealing with discrimination online or being the recipient of a huge pile-on from classmates.
But the surgeon general himself acknowledged there are benefits. The Upshot had a story about how social media can be crucial for many LGBTQ teenagers.
You talked to children and teenagers, telling them the surgeon general had warned that social media posed a “profound risk of harm.” What did they say?
The reaction to the news was often “we already knew that.” For many people, the value in Dr. Murthy’s report wasn’t new information, but that it brought together what’s out there.
Some teenagers said that, a lot of the time, adults don’t fully understand the benefits of social media. They talked about how Instagram has opened their eyes to new career paths, or how TikTok has taught them about new cultures.
They also said that even though they’re already aware of some of the harms, it’s important to be more upfront about them so they can better navigate them.
I think that’s where we’re at, trying to create a road map for the reality of the current world. Kids are going to use social media. How can we make sure their experiences are as smooth as possible?
What do teenagers think the harms are?
Many teenagers said one issue is just how much time they spend online in the first place.
Our colleague Wesley Parnell also talked to several middle schoolers who said they had people attempt to hack their accounts, that they had been impersonated and that their reputations had been damaged because of rumors.
For other students, being in an online world beyond social media can be tough. Some have grappled with the fact that they often see what an ‘ideal’ body and figure look like in images online. They look at themselves and compare themselves. So spending time on the internet is affecting their own self-image.
But that’s not new.
It’s not. It’s one of those things that teenagers have been dealing with for a long time and that is just getting more attention now politically.
One of the teenagers we talked to is a high school sophomore. She said that when she was 11, in middle school, she founded an art account on Instagram. She wanted to turn it into a business and “make a name for herself.” But she was so focused on the views, likes, comments and shares that she really started to lose her sense of self as an artist, even at that young age. She’s been thinking about how she wants to use social media, and what her own personal guidelines will be so that she doesn’t fall back into that.
Didn’t the surgeon general’s report highlight something that was true long before social media came along — many if not most parents live in different worlds from many if not most teenagers?
A lot of teenagers we talked to said that: Their parents don’t have any idea of how often they use social media or what they’re doing online.
Some felt that, rather than passing laws or having tech companies step in, the best route forward is for families to get more up to speed about what’s happening — and for kids to be more willing to share what they’re doing. At the same time, some parents themselves are looking for help in navigating all this.
One student our colleague Olivia Bensimon talked to spoke about a really painful experience with cyberbullying. She described it as if she had a real mental breakdown. She confided in friends, but she didn’t tell her parents. Some teenagers said they have dealt with overwhelming situations like that and have asked themselves, “Next time, should I tell my parents?”
Another student told us that the current national conversation is missing the bigger issue. Some young people are going to social media and spending a lot of time online as an escape, and finding communities and stability that they might struggle to find in the real world. Teenagers told us they hope adults focus on the reasons for that.
Some places have passed laws requiring parental consent for young people to go on social media. But that’s pointless, isn’t it? Social media is just something that you have to have.
That was one of the first things we heard from the teenagers we talked to. At the end of the day, requiring parental consent is just another barrier for kids to get around, and they’ll get around it.
Social media is obviously really central to how a lot of young people are not just communicating but how they’re processing the world — I’m in Gen Z myself, and it’s a major part of my life. And for many of the teenagers we interviewed, they agree that there are potential harms, but when it comes to what the solution is, the answer is less clear to them.
Dr. Murthy called on tech companies to enforce minimum age limits. But some kids told you there’s no incentive for social media companies to limit who can sign up and log on.
We’re in a youth mental health crisis right now that got worse in the pandemic, but it had started before. There have been questions about the roles that social media and tech companies might play in that crisis. But even as pressure rises on tech companies to make changes, experts say that caveats in existing laws limit the actual impact they’re going to have on young people.
Enjoy a sunny day with a high near 69 and light wind. At night, expect mostly clear skies and a low around 53 with a light wind.
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Call and response
It was early evening on an unseasonably mild Friday night in February. I was walking quickly along Fifth Street toward Second Avenue and wondering whether we were getting the first taste of spring while trying not to trip on broken sections of the sidewalk.
I saw a man walking towards me. He was holding a phone to his ear. As he got closer, he held the phone away from his face.
“Marco!” he shouted.
He returned his phone to his ear and paused.
“Marco!” he shouted again.
This time, I heard a voice respond from behind me on the opposite side of the street.
“Polo!” the voice said.
The man grinned as we passed each other
— Rachel Misner
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