In a world surrounded by technology, it’s uncommon for someone not to use Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. And though every generation has some exposure to these sites, it’s most common for preteens and teenagers to be the most engaged.
According to a report by Pew Research Center’s Forum on Internet & Technology, though 81% of surveyed teens ages 13 to 17 feel connected to their friends online and have positive feelings about their social media use, 45% feel overwhelmed by all the drama and feel pressure to post content that makes them look good. Additionally, 37% of teen users feel pressure to post content that will get them a lot of interaction.
Erin Divincenzo, children’s behavioral health specialist at the ADAMHS Board of Cuyahoga County in Cleveland; Dr. Phil Epstein, a psychologist at Partners for Behavioral Health & Wellness in Beachwood; and Tom Royer, president and CEO of Beech Brook in Pepper Pike, said the pressure can lead to self-esteem and mental health issues in preteens and teens.
“Preteens and teens can be very impressionable,” Royer said. “Judgment is not always sound. Adolescents, for example, are often influenced by feelings of omnipotence, so much that potential danger is not consistently evaluated with accuracy. Words, especially from peers, can hold huge weight. A youth with compromised self-esteem can take online feedback literally. A comment such as ‘if you think you’d be better off dead, why don’t you kill yourself’ can have a disastrous impact on a preteen or adolescent.”
DiVincenzo said youth is a time of important brain development. Repeated and constant use of social media and devices can cut into time spent connecting face to face.
“That can impact their self-image,” she explained. “But, another thing that can happen is they are on their phones for a long time and this causes them to stay up late. That sleep deprivation can be a huge impact, and anytime we’re sleep-deprived, we can feel depressed as well. It’s hard to feel good about ourselves when we don’t get enough sleep.”
DiVincenzo added it is normal for preteens and teens to compare themselves to others at this age. With heavily-edited and filtered photos being the norm, comparison to these caricatures of reality can have a negative impact.
“It’s hard to know what is authentic or inauthentic these days, especially with filtered photos” she stated. “We’re constantly comparing and contrasting ourselves to others. When kids are younger, they don’t always know that or are aware it’s not reality.”
If a preteen or teen doesn’t conform or post what is expected of them by others, Epstein said this can be “devastating” for one’s self-image. Users can experience negative comments about them, leading to an emotional spiral. In these situations, concerned parents should be aware of a few red flags.
“Kids let you know when something is wrong by becoming very silent and withdrawing or acting out in ways that divert attention,” Epstein explained. “They can become avoidant, like all of a sudden they don’t want to go to school. They’d avoid the situation. They begin to show signs of depression and anxiety, loss of appetite or overeating. It’s very much the same response they’d have to other situations.”
If a child is displaying these behaviors, and parents have observed chronic electronic use, they should look to regulate usage.
“When we see kids constantly going on their phones and iPads to the exclusion of everything else, that is a red flag in itself,” Epstein stated. “Parents need to be able to say to their kids that they have a lot of other things to be involved in. The question is how they are going to strike balance.”
Royer said these problems have grown because of how common it is for preteens and teens to be exposed to negative feelings. It’s not that growing up has necessarily become harder, he added.
“Growing up comes with abundance (of) opportunities and challenges,” he explained. “It always has. Is it harder to grow up today than in times past? Maybe yes, maybe no. But, current times are certainly not simple. Nonetheless, human beings have a demonstrated history of finding creative solutions to obstacles encountered.”
Regardless of what triggers these feelings, it’s important to know the options. Royer said things like access to development assets like caring parents and family, meaningful friendships, and a safe community buffer can help.
“Together, these form a healthy platform for preteens and teens to grow up feeling good about themselves, their bodies and their life as a whole,” he said. “Youth need hope for the future and a belief in themselves.”