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How Using Social Media Affects Teenagers

Experts say kids are growing up with more anxiety and less self-esteem.

Many parents worry about how exposure to technology might affect toddlers developmentally. We know our preschoolers are picking up new social and cognitive skills at a stunning pace, and we don’t want hours spent glued to an iPad to impede that. But adolescence is an equally important period of rapid development, and too few of us are paying attention to how our teenagers’ use of technology—much more intense and intimate than a 3-year-old playing with dad’s iPhone—is affecting them. In fact, experts worry that social media and text messages that have become so integral to teenage life are promoting anxiety and lowering self-esteem.

Young people report that there might be a good reason to worry. A survey conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health asked 14-24 year olds in the UK how social media platforms impacted their health and wellbeing. The survey results found that Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all led to increased feelings of depression, anxiety, poor body image and loneliness.

Indirect communication

Teens are masters at keeping themselves occupied in the hours after school until way past bedtime. When they’re not doing their homework (and when they are) they’re online and on their phones, texting, sharing, trolling, scrolling, you name it. Of course, before everyone had an Instagram account teens kept themselves busy, too, but they were more likely to do their chatting on the phone, or in-person when hanging out at the mall. It may have looked like a lot of aimless hanging around, but what they were doing was experimenting, trying out skills, and succeeding and failing in tons of tiny real-time interactions that kids today are missing out on. For one thing, modern teens are learning to do most of their communication while looking at a screen, not another person.

“As a species, we are very highly attuned to reading social cues,” says Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect. “There’s no question kids are missing out on very critical social skills. In a way, texting and online communicating—it’s not like it creates a nonverbal learning disability, but it puts everybody in a nonverbal disabled context, where body language, facial expression, and even the smallest kinds of vocal reactions are rendered invisible.”

Lowering the risks

Certainly speaking indirectly creates a barrier to clear communication, but that’s not all. Learning how to make friends is a major part of growing up, and friendship requires a certain amount of risk-taking. This is true for making a new friend, but it’s also true for maintaining friendships. When there are problems that need to be faced—big ones or small ones—it takes courage to be honest about your feelings and then hear what the other person has to say. Learning to effectively cross these bridges is part of what makes friendship fun and exciting, and also scary. “Part of healthy self-esteem is knowing how to say what you think and feel even when you’re in disagreement with other people or it feels emotionally risky,” notes Dr. Steiner-Adair.

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