“As a species we are very highly attuned to reading social cues. 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.” (Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, clinical psychologist and author).

How many teenagers do you know who have ended up in trouble because their online behavior has been inappropriate?

I recall a situation where fifteen-year-old year-old Alice videoed an unpleasant altercation between two students, shared it on a social media platform and, within a few minutes, it was being shared and distributed by her peers. When a colleague and I shared what had happened with Alice’s mother, the latter was in denial and blamed us for the way we had handled the matter. How did we handle the matter? Alice had admitted her poor judgment. My colleague and I arranged with another colleague who had extensive knowledge and experience in the responsible use of social media to meet with Alice and share some thoughts.

Fourteen-year-old Maeve lent her phone to Liam who discovered an inappropriate photograph of Maeve and forwarded it on to a friend of his, who then passed it around. It had a sad ending, as the school expelled the students involved, not a decision I would support in most cases, as schools and families should see themselves as people tasked with educating young people on how to use technology responsibly. Two young lives – and the lives of their families – were severely impacted by a moment of indecision or thoughtlessness, a lifelong lesson hopefully learnt as well: every choice has a consequence.

There are many similar stories to these stories that I have heard. So, I decided to do some research about the responsible use of technology. One of the things I have learnt over the years is that many young people are not as technologically savvy as we think they are. Indeed, many are fairly ignorant of some fairly basic common sense behaviors one should follow when using technology.

Promoting anxiety and lowering self-esteem

It is common knowledge that the inappropriate use of social media can promote anxiety and lower self-esteem in teenage lives. It can also lead to unnecessary distractions – from academic studies, for example – disrupt sleep patterns, and expose youth to “bullying, rumor spreading, unrealistic views of other people’s lives and [negative] peer pressure.” (Mayo Clinic Staff)

A report by the Mayo Clinic states: ” A 2019 study of more than 6,500 12-to 15-year-olds in the U.S. found that those who spent more than three hours a day using social media might be at heightened risk for mental health problems. Another 2019 study of more than 12,000 13- to 16-year-olds in England found that using social media more than three times a day predicted poor mental health and well-being in teens.”

Another article about how social media affects teenagers noted: “A survey 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.”

The teenage brain is still developing

It is also worth remembering that the teenage brain is at a key point of development and the Pre-Frontal Cortex, the Chief Executive area of the brain, where planning and decision-making occurs, is still maturing and will continue to do so until the mid-twenties. Thus, teenagers tend to react more emotionally to issues going on in their lives than adults would and that partly explains why one witnesses hurtful and emotional outbursts on social media.

“Kids text all sorts of things that you would never in a million years contemplate saying to anyone’s face [especially true of girls].” (Dr. Donna Wick, clinical and developmental psychologist)

Some reasons teenagers use social media

There are many reasons why teenagers use social media, though the most common reasons appear to include:

  • having fun;
  • connecting with friends and sharing their creativity;
  • joining group chats, or gaming chat sites and meeting new people;
  • peer pressure – creating a belief that those who are not on social media will miss out in some way or other;
  • wanting to find out information about current events; undertake some research for an assignment or in an area of interest; link to a support network;
  • feeling bored and having nothing to do;
  • sharing hobbies, music and other interests.

Positive benefits from the responsible use of social media

There are many positive benefits of the responsible and safe use of social media we can share with youth. Some of these benefits include:

  • being better equipped to become active, responsible and respectful global citizens;
  • the development of innovative and creativity skills which are so important for future careers. These skills can include being creative with profile pages, images, videos, modifying games – perhaps even creating a new game.
  • learning: understanding digital media literacy in a safe and secure environment. This can include developing social media skills, learning how to gain enjoyment from the positive use of social media online activities, and gaining a deeper understanding of online risks and how to respond to them;
  • positive connections with extended family and friends, or within safe local and global online communities. These connections create a sense of belonging and can have a positive impact on a teenager’s health and wellbeing;
  • the development of real world skills to encourage them to become more resilient and independent.

Become the wise guide on the side

There is enough research to show how social media plays a significant role in the creative and social lives of youth.

A mentor – or teacher, parent, youth worker, or coach – can have repeated conversations about the responsible use of social media with their mentee and, as they build a relationship of trust, the mentee might ask more questions, reveal concerns or share some challenging experiences as they try and understand the enormous responsibility every individual should feel when communicating respectfully and safely with others via social media. These conversations are even more important in the post-pandemic global community, as youth have experienced a variety of reactions to lockdowns and being isolated from face-to-face relationships with their peers.


20 things every teen needs to know about the responsible use of social media

Here are the most common 20 things which a significant adult can discuss with a young person about the responsible and respectful use of technology.  You could make a copy of these key points and discuss them with the young person with whom you are interacting.

  1. Make sure all your privacy settings are activated on all social media sites you use, so that people you don’t know will be unable to see your posts. Keep checking your profile and remove anything that might be too personal or inappropriate.
  2. Never give out any of your log-in details or passwords to friends or anyone you meet online.
  3. Use different usernames and passwords to protect yourself from hackers. If you think your profile is being hacked, change passwords immediately.
  4. Don’t use silly email addresses, especially if you are applying for scholarships, awards, or jobs.
  5. Only accept friend requests from real friends you personally know. Even then, check their profile before accepting.
  6. NEVER give away your phone number or home address online.
  7. Only download software after you have discussed this with your parents or an adult you trust.
  8. Remember that everything you post online is PUBLIC. It makes no difference whether or not you delete it at some time in the future. It can be traced back to you.
  9. Be highly selective of what you post online. Will your parents approve? NEVER post anything online or send anything you would be embarrassed for anyone important to you to see. When in doubt, check with your parents or an adult you trust. A good rule is NEVER to post images of others without their permission.
  10. Avoid going into chat rooms and revealing personal information about yourself. Many people who go online lie about who they really are.
  11. NEVER post anything online when you are angry, so you don’t say anything you might regret later. Also, don’t respond to anything online when you are emotionally charged up in any way.
  12. Avoid responding to messages online that are unkind, hurtful or potentially damaging either to you or others. If you are concerned about a message, talk to your parents or an adult you trust. Stay true to the Golden Rule: Do to others what you would like them to do to you. PAUSE before you post!
  13. Avoid speaking about your personal problems or challenges with your friends online. Rather phone or chat face to face – it’s safer.
  14. Avoid speaking to strangers online – and NEVER agree to meet someone that you have met online if you don’t know them in real life. Speak to your parents or an adult you trust immediately if one of these people wants to meet up with you.
  15. Avoid posting or sending inappropriate images, videos – even messages – as you might be breaking the law and end up in trouble with the police, especially if you are underage. If you receive inappropriate posts, tell your parents or an adult you trust immediately, or take screenshots to discuss with people you trust. Also, disable features such as posting to multiple social media sites at once.
  16. Don’t overshare on social media. People don’t really want to know everything you are doing for every minute of the day. Social media is not only about you.
  17. Negotiate the use of a computer and mobile phone at home with your parents, as this will build trust and responsibility and assist your adolescent journey to independence or interdependence.
  18. Remember to logout when you use public computers, such as in a public library or a place of study.
  19. Avoid clicking on pop-ups, as some of these may appear friendly and safe, though can lead to requests for more personal information or link you to pornography sites.
  20. Place your mobile phone and computer in another room at night, as you need nine hours sleep EVERY night.

These points should lead to further interesting discussions about the use of technology and how one develops a responsible and safe digital footprint.

Yet there is also another point to encourage youth to develop their potential linked to the choices they make ‘offline’. “… the gold standard advice for helping kids build healthy self-esteem is to get them involved in something that they’re interested in. It could be sports or music or taking apart computers or volunteering – anything that sparks an interest and gives them confidence. When kids learn to feel good about what they can do instead of how they look and what they own, they’re happier and better prepared for success in real life. That most of these activities also involve spending time interacting with peers face-to-face is just the icing on the cake.” (Rachel Ehmke)