Teens are spending between 7-11 hours per day with different types of media and most adolescents are accessing media content on their personal mobile phones. This creates an extraordinary level of unsupervised access to the Internet that never existed before. Parents need to know what this means for their children.
While media access can be positive and socially supportive in terms of empathy, acceptance of diversity and inclusiveness, there are also dangers such as cyberbullying, sexting, pornography, driving while texting, video-game addictions, and media-related depression. These dangers touch nearly every aspect of teen health and well-being. Let me explain why….
Adolescence is a time of rapid growth and development. Pre-teens begin the process of becoming an adult around 11 years and continue to progress through early, middle, and late adolescence until they emerge on the other side as young adults. This transition includes many physical changes, including increased height and body mass, sexual development and the ability to have children, and changes in facial structure.
Intellectually, adolescence is when children are able to develop abstract thought and use that new skill to learn new ways of interacting with the larger world. The ability to think abstractly allows them to understand rights and obligations, how to determine what is right and wrong, and why, as well as understand how their actions influence others.
These changes in physical and intellectual processing permit teens to then grow emotionally and socially as their social sphere expands throughout adolescence. New demands emerge on an emotional and social level when teens begin to create peer groups, learn to blend in, learn to stand out, and begin romantic relationships with others.
There is tremendous integration and overlap between each of these areas that cannot be separated or extracted from the others. Therefore, actions or activities that influence one area (physical, intellectual, emotional, and social) will ultimately influence them all.
So how does social media influence teen health? Well, if teens are sitting and looking at their phones for 7-11 hours per day, that means that they are not being very physically active. Currently, over 30% of adolescents are classified as overweight or obese, and the numbers are rising. Excess weight in adolescence can lead to diabetes, fatty liver disease, coronary artery disease and bone and joint problems. Additionally, teens that are overweight are at higher risk for depression and low body confidence. They also tend to suffer higher rates of bullying that can influence their social interaction.
Since 25% of teens report being cyber-bullied, this can make teens feel insecure or avoid interacting with others. Furthermore, the abundance of pornography online is effecting how adolescents related to each other in sexual activities. Many times pornography portrays males as the central character in sexual acts with his needs superseding the woman’s. Additionally, porn often depicts women enjoying being mistreated as part of the sexual act. This can influence how teenage boys and girls relate to each other when they start dating. If parents have not talked specifically to their sons and daughters about respect, consent, and how to treat others in intimate relationships, the information gleaned from pornography may set teens up to being aggressors and victims during their formative and early sexual experiences.
Intellectually, being online is a passive activity. Modern teens heavily use Snapchat and YouTube to view content and interact with others. Watching large amounts of visual content without any expenditure of intellectual engagement can program young minds to be inactive. Intellectual activity is necessary to figure out mathematical problems or recall information. The effort teens expend to learn new information helps build new neural connections that support knowledge acquisition. So, when teens grab their phones and look up information rather than doing the laborious work of figuring it out on their own, the level of learning is lessened and the ability to recall the information later is reduced. Additionally, having free time to sit and think without being visually stimulated and distracted by videos or photos allows teens to ponder situations, consider details more closely, and be creative.
The online environment is a highly edited realm that rarely reflects real life. Being inundated with this fake, glossy image of life during a period of rapid social and emotional development can lead teens to think that their real life is not good enough. Additionally, the pictures that are presented on social media are usually edited and carefully selected only to show a perfect image. This can be devastating to adolescents whose bodies are moving through awkward transitions and may not look like the images seen online. Teens who feel they don’t measure up to the beautiful online pictures may develop a low self-esteem nor recognize all the goodness in their life because nothing can ever measure up to what is seen online.
As you can see from these few, brief examples, there is a connection between teen health and social media. As with most things, social media is neither good nor bad. What matters is how it is used. Parents can help their teens reap all the good from social media and avoid the risks by being proactive and monitoring what their teens are viewing online. Keeping the communication channels open and talking frequently with teens about what is happening in their life will help them navigate adolescence with success.
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Lenhart, A., Ling, R., Campbell, S. & Purcell, K. (2010). https://www.pewinternet.org/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018/ Accessed April 3, 2019.
Smith, A. & Anderson, M. (2018). Social Media Use in 2018. Washington DC: Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved from: https://www.pewinternet.org/2018/03/01/social-media-use-in-2018/ Accessed April 3, 2019.
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About the instructor
Deanna Marie Mason PhD
More than 20 years of clinical experience helping families:
Bachelor's Degree in Registered Nursing, Master’s Degree in Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and PhD in Nursing. University professor, patient education specialist, pediatric researcher, published author and reviewer to first-line international scientific journals, continuous philanthropic activity related to health promotion and education, wife and mother of two children.