Protecting Teens from the (Potential) Dangers of Social Media

Social media has become an integral part of our everyday lives. Parents use it, just like their children. However, on average, teenagers are the ones who spend the most time on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and similar platforms. These platforms confuse and frighten parents!

Do you know what social media platforms your teen is using?

According to the report, Common Sense Media, teens spend about 9 hours on entertainment media, including social media, games, and TV, every day. 

This means that teenagers spent more time with media and technology than with parents, school work, or physical activities. 

Parents probably ask themselves: “Will my child become addicted to video games? Will this ruin their ability to think for themselves? What happens if my child is cyberbullied or becomes one? Could an online predator harm my child? Will continual screen use diminish their ability to know how to socialize normally?”

As a Child and Family Therapist, I believe parents are right to ask these questions. The issue is how to get to the answers!

Our current world makes getting answers challenging. Before the pandemic, many parents banned social media, screen use, and cell phone ownership from children, including their teenagers. After the pandemic, many children were isolated from peers without any possible way to connect. Parents had no choice but to let their children go online to stem the growing anxiety and depression their children were experiencing from the isolation. During the pandemic, children were doing school online, but many parents discovered they were “multitasking” and playing games online or talking to friends via social media while participating in school. Being online, for school or social connection, is now a regular part of our lives. It isn’t going away anytime soon.

Why are we concerned? Studies show that social media and online video games reduce our effectiveness in understanding human emotion and create a barrier to communicating deeply. There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. The more teens spend online, the more shallow their communication and empathy skills could be. The teen years is a crucial time for skills that will sustain them in adulthood and the right mix requires real face-to-face interaction along with screen time.

Mirror neurons underlie emotional empathy

Our brains use “mirror neurons” to understand others’ perspectives and emotions through an inner imitation of other people’s actions. These special neurons reproduce emotions and actions in ourselves. This can be outside of our awareness and contributes to “gut reactions” and inform us on knowing right from wrong. It is the key to developing empathy and compassion as our neurons mirror the pain witnessed in other people. When they feel it we feel it too.

Perhaps this is why cyberbullying has become such a problem with preteens and teenagers? Maybe they cannot feel the pain and suffering of the peers they are tormenting. Without that feedback loop, they lose the natural conscience we need in social situations. Mirror neurons are also a prime component of learning, and this might account for the massive drop in school grades and homework performance. There is more to learning than facts and information. The joy of learning and the social connections that physical schools provide are a necessary part of a teens social emotional growth.

Of course, not all teens are engaged in cyberbullying or looking at inappropriate content. Many really just want to have fun and connect with peers. Teens can learn valuable things online. Additionally, many teens have found groups that support and encourage them through unique challenges in life situations, like mental health or artistic/cultural pursuits. This can’t always be found in our local community. Balance is needed and parents may need to help teens find the good and minimize the bad.

Here are some tips to help you learn more about your teen’s social media interactions and help them if necessary:

Give yourself permission, as the parent, to ask your child about concerns they have or problems they have experienced. Maybe your teen never tells you anything because you never ask, or perhaps you ask in an anxious and condemning way. Don’t assume wrongdoing but don’t be in denial either. 

If your teen gives you some pushback, don’t get offended when asked about social media use. These are normal human defenses. Just reassure them that you don’t believe they are doing something wrong but that you are curious and want to know more about social media and how it all works. Be curious and open-minded.

Get on social media yourself and learn how it works. Don’t depend on your teen to tell you everything or tell the right things. You can discover it yourself. I recommend parents friend or link to your child on various social media platforms – even though if they might think it weird. If they know you are online too and can see their content, they might think twice before posting something inappropriate. Sometimes being POTS (parent over the shoulder) has its benefits.

Parenting teens on social media might feel like the old adage: “If you can’t beat them, join them,” and that is exactly what this is…You can’t beat them, so you better join them in the online world!

If you have concerns about what your child is doing or they actively resist you finding out what they are posting or doing or who their friends are, that could be a red flag to pay attention to. Don’t go all “hair on fire” on them. Just note your concern and firmly investigate further. Don’t let a their resistance deter you. Ask questions of them, their friends, their friend’s parents, and look at their media on their devices when they sit them down. Yeah, they will get annoyed. They will live. 

I tell parents, who have real concerns about their children’s social media use, insist on having all passwords, account names and even stalk them online! Sounds harsh? It is better to have an irritated teen than an exploited one or one in deep trouble with the school or law. Even the most innocent child can get caught up in things way beyond their developmental capacity to deal with…I have seen it happen many times over. Many teens have hidden accounts, back up phone in case you take theirs, borrow their friends phone, etc.

You can take a social media fast for the entire family

You are allowed to remove all devices if needed. They may have been gifts to your child, but that gift was intended to be used correctly and safely. As a side note, many teens who lose their devices start finding more outside entertainment or real world social interactions to engage in…they frequently come out of their rooms and talk to parents. Wow, so strange, but true.

Because of this fact, take a “social media fast” for the whole family from time to time. Ban all social media and screen use for a day or a weekend. Provide lots of fun alternatives and food. Food is always helpful! Once you get past the grumbling, the home atmosphere might become more positive. 

Don’t focus so much on controlling the child as managing the media. Shaming and condemning don’t get positive results, and children can seek revenge. Be respectful but firm, loving but insistent. Tell them you are removing the devices because THEY are causing too many problems or distractions. You just want to help the ENTIRE family find a better focus and social interaction, not just the teenager, right?

Make discussions about the world and its problem a regular thing. Teenagers want and need support, and they don’t have adult wisdom and experience to manage life’s difficulties. You have to open the space to have these conversations. It may be awkward at first, but making them a normal car-ride conversation or over an after-school snack can open your child up to share their fears, anxiety, and needs. 

Parents of teens cannot effectively use control to manage them. You have to use influence if you want to have a lasting effect. Your goal for this developmental stage is to train them for adulthood. It’s only a few years away. If you tell them what to do all the time versus helping them with the best solution and sometimes experience the negative consequences of life, they won’t be ready. 

Parenting a teen is like when your child learned to walk. You couldn’t catch them every time but had to let them stumble and fall on occasions. You protected them against any serious threats (sharp objects, going into the street), but you cautiously walked alongside, encouraging and cheering on their successful steps until walking was natural. You can do this for social media and screen use too. Walk alongside them. Protect but don’t smother them. Steer them in the right direction and remove them from obvious dangerous situations. Bring a balance of off-screen activities to the family. And in the end, they will protect themselves, and be better human beings.

Some teens aren’t liking Facebook as much as older users

Is Facebook losing its likability among teens?

Teens who belong to the first truly mobile generation — their most common form of communication is text messaging — are increasingly gravitating to services made for their smartphones and tablets like mobile social network Path. Photo-sharing apps are also very popular, especially Instagram. Above, Mary Lee, 13, of suburban Cleveland says she spends more time on the computer now than in the past.
(Tony Dejak, Associated Press / July 14, 2008)

Ron Huxley Reacts: The main reason I got on FB was to keep up with what my children are doing? Answer this question: What social network is your child hanging out online? Should mom and dad’s follow them to find out what they are posting? Where do you, the parent, like to hand out socially?

Cell Phones in Classrooms?

In the battle for the hearts and minds of students, the front line for educators has changed over the last couple of decades. Rather than the age-old struggle for access, the foremost concern today is one of attention.  

Sure, there will always be issues of access, but for the most part that battle has been won. We’re no longer suffering from an information deficit; we’re suffering from an attention deficit.

The shift from access deficit to attention deficit has some very practical ramifications for schools. Certainly it gives perspective on the question of whether to allow cell phones in the classroom. On KQED MindShift (and reposted here on MediaShift), Audrey Watters argued for cell phones in the classroom because they (or at least smartphones) are powerful research tools. But the ability to get to information is not the problem; what students lack is the critical thinking skills to sort, filter and interpret information. Recent research has shown that students are good at getting to information, but weak at knowing what to do once they get there. So we must be protective of the classroom as a uniquely effective learning environment.

In 1997, writer and critic Howard Rheingold proposed two rules for our rapidly changing world: “Rule Number One is to pay attention. Rule Number Two might be: Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.” This was before text-messaging, smartphones, Facebook, Skype, YouTube or Twitter. Not surprisingly, the business community responded quickly to the importance of attention. Business strategists like Michael Goldhaber began referring to our economy as an “attention economy.” Echoing Rheingold, Goldhaber stated in 1997, “What counts most now is what is most scarce now, namely attention.” Their words are much truer today than they were in 1997.

Distracted students

This scarcity of attention is certainly an issue with today’s media-multitasking students. A study released in January 2010 by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that total media exposure per day for young people ages 13 to 18 increased from 7 hours and 29 minutes in 1999 to 10 hours and 45 minutes in 2009. Use per medium increased, but the largest increase was time spent multitasking. My work as a teacher confirms this. At the beginning of every semester, I ask my students how many media they use while doing homework. The great majority of them admit using some combination of two or three of their cell phones, laptops, televisions and iPods while studying. Out of a class of 25, only one or two still value shutting everything off and focusing completely on their work.

Taking Rheingold’s two rules and applying them to the classroom can give schools the framework for a well-informed policy regarding cell phones.

Rule #1 – Pay Attention

Teachers are vying for their students’ attention. Of course, this is a venerable struggle, but in the past students’ only options were looking out the window, passing notes, or throwing spit wads at each other. Most teachers will tell you the struggle is much tougher today; it’s one of those things they talk about at meetings and lunch breaks. Just the other day, the topic was brought up at a departmental meeting where I teach, and the stories and opinions (universally negative) immediately came gushing forth. The teacher sitting next to me told me he has a “one-and-done” approach: The students are warned in the syllabus and on the first day of class, and as soon as one of them pulls his or her cell phone out during class, he or she gets the boot. While I have a hard time being so strict, I respect his strategy; we teachers are all aware that our top competitor is that little electronic wonder lovingly buzzing in our students’ pockets or purses.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been under constant pressure to lift a ban on cell phones that he instituted in 2007 for New York’s 1.1 million-student school system. According to CBS News, New York had long maintained an “out-of-sight, out-of-trouble” approach to cell phones until Bloomberg’s department of education started using metal detectors to not only search for weapons, but confiscate cell phones as well. Bloomberg has remained steadfast, surviving not only the outrage of parents and students, but a court battle as well. In March 2008, an appellate court ruled that “the Chancellor reasonably determined that a ban on cell phone possession was necessary to maintain order in the schools.”

New York schools are not unique. School systems everywhere are outlawing cell phones, but students are undeterred. In a recent survey (PDF)by Pew Internet, 65 percent of students admit bringing phones to class even though they are banned. They put them in their socks, their underwear, their sandwiches, whatever it takes. Fifty-eight percent of the students in those same schools admit sending a text message during class.

To make matters worse, parents are not allied with teachers in this. As a matter of fact, one can safely assume that the majority of students’ texts during school are exchanges with parents. In the same Pew survey, 98 percent of parents of cell-owning teens say a major reason their child has the phone is so that they can be in touch no matter where the teen is (a blessing and a curse to students). This business of parents always being connected to their children has wide-ranging implications (in her book “Always On,” professor Naomi Baron points to “the end of anticipation”), but as pertains to cell phones in the classroom, parents are simply added to the growing list of distractions.

Rule #2 – Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention


Students need to understand that their attention is an in-demand resource, i.e., everyone wants a piece of them. When I talk to my students about this, they are very receptive. They have an awareness deep down that they are too busy, too distracted, too harried. Many of them don’t have a point of reference, a time they can remember when things were simpler, quieter, slower. This is especially true of those born in the 21st century who’ve never known a time when they weren’t “always on” – virtually connected to loved ones and the wider world. According to Pew, 84 percent of cell-owning 13-17 year-olds acknowledge sleeping with their cell phone next to them, and it is a “fairly common practice” for that group to sleep with their cell phones under their pillows so that a call or text will awaken them.

This issue of attention is more than just teachers wanting to control students; it is about the importance of students learning to focus on one thing. A growing amount of research by neurologists confirms what our mommas already told us – we think best and perform best through focused, undistracted attention. In 2009, Stanford researchers studied the cognitive capabilities of media multitaskers and came to the following conclusion: “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch form one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.” When comparing the two groups, Stanford researchers sought to discover where media multitaskers are superior.

Alas, says lead researcher Eyal Ophir, “We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it.” Students need to be challenged and trained in the art of single-tasking. Where better than the classroom? As Neil Postman urged in his book “The End of Education,” schools need to be engaging in technology education. He wasn’t talking about teaching students how to use technology, but rather “learning about what technology helps us to do and what it hinders us from doing.” In Postman’s mind, technology education should be a branch of the humanities, providing students with a historical perspective on “humanity’s perilous and exciting romance with technology.”

Preserving the Classroom

When I asked her thoughts on cell phones in the classroom, Dr. Baron, who is executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, pointed to the varied roles filled by the classroom. “A classroom is many places at once,” she said, “a room for sharing ideas, a space (literally) for contemplation, a setting for social interaction. None of these functions harmonizes with intrusion from the outside.”

Indeed, the classroom has a hallowed place in our society, and it still functions pretty much as it has always functioned. Countless people point to a time in their lives where a certain teacher in a certain classroom made all the difference in the world. Just ask.

The other day I was walking through a building on my campus. Inside one of the small classrooms was a goofy-looking middle-aged man holding court with 25 or 30 students huddled around. I have no idea what the man was teaching, but he did so with gusto. I slowed past his room, drawn to whatever was happening in there. He loved what he was talking about, and his students were sitting on the edge of their seats, leaning toward him. Just as I started picking up my pace, the entire room burst into laughter. He was just getting warmed up.

That scene is repeated every day in hundreds of thousands of classrooms around the world. From the most prestigious halls of higher education to my son’s kindergarten class led by the delightful Ms. Norman, teachers keep joyfully passing on knowledge and wisdom to the students under their tutelage.

There never has been – nor will there ever be – a more dynamic learning context than face-to-face in close proximity. Everything possible should be done to protect that timeless environment from interruption and distraction.

Greg Graham teaches writing at the University of Central Arkansas and is a teacher-consultant with the National Writing Project. Specializing in facilitating literacy stories, Greg is a field researcher with Ohio State University’s Digital Archives of Literacy Narratives and co-author of a chapter in the forthcoming book Literacy Narratives that Speak to Us: Curated Exhibits from the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives. You can follow him on Twitter or his blog The Digital Realist.

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Ron Huxley’s Reaction: Sorry, I don’t buy the idea that Cell Phones are useful research tools in the classroom. Put in a computer for the children to use. I do believe that the “attention economy” applies to our families use of time however. We need to make some house rules around time spent on social media like Facebook and Google Plus. Is Myspace used by anyone anymore. I really should go delete my account over there…