By Kaleigh Cornelison, MSW | July 21, 2023
Project Coordinator II, ETR
Headlines about the risks and negative impacts of social media use for adolescents are seemingly everywhere. And while opinions about the direct link between social media use and adverse health outcomes vary, the one thing that most people agree on is that social media is not going away anytime soon.
This leaves caring adults with the daunting task of trying to help young people navigate a landscape that many of us are struggling to understand ourselves. As you lean into these conversations with young people, consider these five strategies to open those lines of communication.
To start, find out which social media platforms young people in your community are using. National trends show that TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram remain the top social media platforms for teens, but what is most popular tends to vary from community to community and can also depend on age group.
Talk to the young people around you to see what they like to use and why. Not only will this fill you in on what the more popular apps are, but this can also open up a conversation about how those youth are using the platforms.
It may feel intimidating or even risky to download and try out a new app, but doing just that can be an excellent way to engage with youth about their own social media use. Once you know what the youth in your community are using, download it yourself and recruit a few friends to engage with you on that app.
You don’t have to keep it forever but simply understanding the basic ins and outs of Snapchat or Discord can provide you with enough information to ask the right questions and know how these platforms work. You can even ask the youth in your life to help you navigate the app to get a sense of how they’re using it themselves.
One of the most significant pitfalls adults face when engaging with young people around social media is leading with risks and potential negative impacts. Adults often fail to acknowledge that social media is a huge and significant part of young people’s social lives.
It’s important to them, and while there are negative aspects, it’s best to lead with the positive and ask questions nonjudgmentally. Ask youth questions like:
Additionally, many young people with marginalized identities or niche interests find genuine connections online that they may not be able to access elsewhere. Be open to exploring how these online spaces support their sense of community and connection, which may be an important protective factor in their overall resilience.
Of course, it is also important to talk about risks and safer social media use. To facilitate that conversation, encourage young people to think about their personal values and what’s most important to them. Drawing the parallel between who they are, who they want to be, and how they behave (both online and in person) can help adolescents act in accordance with their values. This is not always something that youth are encouraged to think about and making this connection clear supports healthy behaviors across the board.
Then take time to educate youth about the risks of engaging online without using fear tactics. Most youth are more tech-savvy than adults and know how to spot trolls or catfishing, so asking them what they know first can open up a helpful conversation about risks. It can also be helpful to go through their privacy settings together and encourage them to put safeguards in place that feel right to them.
Finally, talk with youth about realistic social media boundaries and work with them to strike a healthy balance. It’s unrealistic to expect youth to boycott social media altogether, but talking with them about what feels like a reasonable time limit to give themselves or if there are certain times of the day that make the most sense to put their phone away (like right before bed) can empower young people to consider their needs and what works best for them.
You can also have conversations with youth about setting boundaries related to who they follow and how those people make them feel. Unfollowing folks who cause comparison traps or promote unrealistic expectations related to things like body image and lifestyle can alleviate some of the negative mental health impacts of social media use.
Now that you have these conversation tips, are you ready to keep building your skills? We recommend checking out our free mini video lesson on emotional health and social media for teens that you can use in your clinic lobby, classroom, or digital communications.
Our ETR Store also has various emotional and mental health resources you can incorporate into your work, including this evidence-based social media workbook for teens that includes cognitive behavioral therapy exercises to manage stress and anxiety from social media.
Kaleigh Cornelison, LMSW, LCSW (she/her/hers) is a Project Coordinator for Evolve: A National HIV E-learning Training Center at ETR. She has worked in a variety of community- and school-based settings where she supported adolescents around issues such as dating violence and social/emotional learning. Kaleigh also has a growing private practice where she provides therapy to teens and young adults and does training for other helping professionals. Kaleigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.