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  • Julie Baron, LCSW-C

Are Smartphones and Social Media Really that Bad for Teens? What Parents Need to Know and What They Can Do

Sarah walked in from school, threw her backpack to the floor and stormed up to her room and slammed the door.  Her mother working in her office two floors below felt the vibrations and knew something must be terribly wrong.  Her daughter, only a month into her freshman year of high school, was distraught when her mother found her sobbing on her bed. With some coaxing by her mother, Sarah recounted her experience through the school day, barely coherent through her sobs, how friend after friend looked judgmentally at her and walked away.   At first baffled, then panicked, and finally once she got a friend to offer intel, devastated to learn that a boy she went to homecoming with over the weekend had spread rumors about her engaging in multiple sexual acts with him and his friends, which was now spreading like wildfire across a combustible social media terrain.

After another day of jeers and snide remarks from middle school classmates about their short, green tipped spiked hair and repeatedly misgendering them as their sex assigned at birth, Zin was drained.  It was all they could do to get through the school day, using every ounce of energy to cope, lucky to absorb anything taught in class.  When Zin got home, they received a much-needed hug from a loving parent, then got online in a supportive LGBTQ+ group chat that reconnected them with their humanity and dignity.

Sadly, one of these teenagers attempted suicide in the days to follow, thankfully surviving, though resulting in hospitalization and a long road to healing.  Can you guess which one?

Access to technology and social media for teens and emerging adults is a mixed experience.  There are benefits and there are risks.  With qualitative and quantitative data having been collected back from 2010, we now have a better sense of the impacts smartphones and the virtual world have on youth mental health.  In fact, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General has recently issued a “Social Media and Youth Mental Health Advisory” (2023) to raise awareness as a public health concern.  In addition, a recent book by Jonathan Haidt, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” highlights the interactive impact of smartphones and parental overprotection on the increased rates of mental health disorders in this generation of teens and emerging adults (Gen Z).  Both are valuable and important resources with a wealth of studies and recommendations, many of which rely on larger systems like the tech companies, government, school systems, and researchers to implement policy and procedural reforms. 

In the meantime, this leaves parents on the front lines to figure out how to navigate the right boundaries for their Gen Zers.  It is parents who can influence their teens’ decision making to mitigate negative impacts on mental health and promote emotional health and wellbeing through a connected relationship.

Here are some valuable takeaways from the collection of studies and warnings from our thought leaders and health officials:

  1. There are specific considerations for technology use during the period of adolescence

  2. Technology and social media have both positive and negative impacts for young people

  3. These impacts are contextual and dependent on personal strengths and vulnerabilities

Based on these takeaways, consider these strategies for navigating appropriate technology and social media use with your teens and emerging adults:

  1. Know your teen and your parental values. Consider your teen’s age, maturity level, and any mental health or neurodiverse conditions which may affect their judgment and ability to manage content, access, and self-regulate the time they spend engaging virtually vs. in person experiences (spending time with family, friends, playing sports, doing other hobbies, movement, or in nature). Consider that during adolescence, the emotional center of the brain is highly sensitive, the drive for social connection is powerful, and the decision-making part of their brain is immature and develops more fully around age 25. Use family values as a basis for reasoning when asserting expectations and goals.  For example, “In this family, we… show others respect, take care of ourselves with healthy behaviors, and spend tech free time with each other.” Parents then need to practice what they preach.

  2. Engage teens in the process for establishing expectations and agreements. When teens feel consulted and participate in conversations about agreed upon goals and boundaries to reach those goals, they are much more likely to abide by them.  Unilateral parental imposition of rules can backfire and invite teens to rebel.  Remember part of their job is to assert their independence and sense of agency.  Discuss what types of scenarios may warrant the removal of devices.  When these parental actions are needed, it can feel easier to manage when contingencies are predictable and teens have been offered opportunities to make the choice that would allow them to continue their use, or they have chosen actions that result in a loss of access.

  3. Leave communication open for ongoing discussions, appropriate monitoring or checking in, and changes in expectations based on changing contexts.  Remember when developing agreements and expectations to reserve the right to monitor or check, either intermittently or if a concern arises that warrant looking into technology use or changing the agreements.  Initiate conversations regularly, with curiosity and non-judgmental approaches to inquire what they are doing online, understand their social context, and discuss perspectives.  Remember all behaviors have pros and cons, so there is always a reason or explanation for specific teen behaviors (even if not an excuse).  Technology and social media use are complex and layered issues that do not have a one size fits all remedy.

While we advocate and wait for larger systemic changes, handwringing and overprotection are unhelpful.  Parents best serve their teens with a connected relationship.  One in which challenging conversations, considering all points of view, and working together, can lead to appropriate and fluid guidance and boundaries which are right for each adolescent.


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