I download and play with every social network I review. While I am there, I get a taste for what teens are sharing. What I see online is what I see at home with my teens. There are many moments where they are insightful, funny and kind. There are some moments where they are cutting, sarcastic and mean. Last night, I watched the CNN special #Being Thirteen: Inside the Secret World of Teens which took a closer look at this online world.
CNN collected the social media feeds of over 200 eighth graders in the US. Participating students, with the permission of their parents, registered their Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts. CNN collected approximately 150,000 social media posts over a six-month period. Besides analyzing their posts, CNN also surveyed the teens about their use of social media.
Some of what CNN discovered would not surprise most parents. Teens spend a lot of time with their phones. They did not divide their offline and online worlds. Friendships and relationships moved seamlessly from school to Instagram. Teens felt compelled to continually check their phones and manage these connections. This constant contact created a lot of social pressure.
A Never Ending Popularity Contest
For me, this was the big takeaway. Listening to these teens talk about growing up online, it felt like running perpetually for office. Their social lives were a never-ending campaign for likes and status. Certainly, the quest to be popular was not new. Teenagers have always sought the approval of peers. As Robert Faris, a researcher who co-authored the study pointed out social media was like adding rocket fuel to this quest.
One way for teens to boost social standing was by pushing someone else down. What their posts revealed was that teens often targeted a friend or close rival. They jabbed at each other through subtweets where the friend commented about them without mention their name but their classmates all knew who they were referring to. Another tactic was to exclude them from a group photo by not tagging them. By neglecting to identify them, the friend was saying I did not want you there. These moves often attracted likes and comments from their classmates.
To maintain their status required a perfectly, polished image. Consequently, teens spent a lot of time curating their Instagram feed. They shared how one bad selfie could change everything. For example, one teen commented on how the most popular kid could quickly become the most made fun of kid with one bad picture. Once posted and shared more widely, a bad picture existed forever online.
For some teens, the pressure to be popular pushed them to adopt a different persona online. One teen described feeling the need to make his Instagram useful or funny for his friends. Online he posted pictures of pot and other adult content. While this was not who he was in school, he had a peer-approved image of himself online. This image generated more likes and attention.
No wonder with all this social positioning online, teens felt the need to monitor continuously. When asked, 61% of teens said they checked their phones to see if their online posts were getting likes and comments. The fear of missing out also played into this constant monitoring. 36% of teens checked to see if their friends were doing things without them and 21% checked to make sure no one was saying mean things about them. With the need to continually monitor and the desire to connect with friends, 57% of teens would rather be grounded than lose their phone.
All of this activity may sound like we are raising a generation of phone addicts. While they may spend a lot of time online, teens are not so much addicted to social media as to each other. In the the digital world, instead of wondering if someone likes them, teens can go online to have instant peer connection and affirmation. According to the experts (Bob Faris & Marion Underwood), this is what teens crave.
At the end, CNN talked with the parents. Most parents underestimated the amount of anxiety teens felt and the amount of mean comments made online. While parents did not know exactly what was going on, the study found that parents who at least tried to check in with their kids made a huge difference. “Parent monitoring effectively erased the negative effects of online conflicts,” Faris said. Even though social media and teens can feel like a runaway train, the fact that parents were still chasing it meant a lot to their teens.
What Can Parents Do?
Thankfully, this special did not leave us parents hanging. Parents can help their teens navigate the digital world by:
Talking with them about their online lives
Ask questions about what they are doing online and what networks they are on. In today’s world, the digital talk is as important as the sex talk.
Joining them on social networks.
By being there, parents can see what their teen is doing and what they are seeing online. To get started, check out my app reviews including the ones mentioned in this program –Twitter, Instagram and Ask.fm.
Finding opportunities for them to step away.
This does not mean confiscating the phone. Families should look for positive ways to take a digital break. Taking a hike outside of cell coverage or putting the phone away for dinner can allow teens a chance to decompress and relax.
While the special focused on the areas where teens were struggling, most of the 150,000 posts were kids just being kids. In fact, life online is generally positive for teens. Here, they find support and friendship. Life the real world, friends and classmates are not always kind. Families can help their teens by checking in with them. By being more engaged in their teen’s online world, parents can help their child overcome these hurtful comments as well as model how to behave online.