Youth Culture Window

When Media Changes So Do Kids


Understanding the Influence of Social Media on Today’s Teens

Once upon a time, in 1981, music moved from radio to TV. In the mid 90s, the Internet captured the world’s attention. Just three years into the new millennium, social media went mainstream.

Each time media has changed, so did the kids who used it…and not all the changes are for the better.

Tracking Trends
The Source for Youth Ministry has always been interested in learning about – and writing about– the influence media has on kids, especially social media. So, when Common Sense Media recently released their report entitled Social Medial, Social Life, we knew we’d have to take a look. The massive study took into consideration the social media habits of more than 1,000 kids between the ages of 13 and 17. Researchers then placed the new findings alongside those from the last 6 years to highlight any shifts in use and experience on social media. A full report is available online, but you can also just scan this helpful infographic. Either way, you’ll find that millions of teens are spending even more time on social media sites…with the exception of Facebook:

  • 89% of 13-17-year-olds have their own smartphones (up from 41% in 2012)
  • 70% of them use social media apps/sites multiple times each day (up from 34% in 2012)
  • 41% of these kids say Snapchat is their favorite platform while 22% prefer Instagram
  • Facebook has fallen out of favor with kids; only 15% say Facebook is their go to social media platform (which is down from 68% in 2012)

These numbers seem to support those from a Pew Research study that found 54% of teens admitting they spend too much time on their phones. That’s not exactly surprising given that 60% of kids believe their friends are addicted to their phones.

Pot, meet Kettle.

Far more interesting from the Common Sense report is the “self-awareness” these same kids are displaying with regards to their use of social media. For instance:

  • 57% of them know that social media distracts them from doing homework
  • 54% say social media keeps them from interacting with the people in front of them
  • 29% admit their smartphones have interrupted sleeping patterns from time to time
  • 42% believe social media has reduced the amount of time they spend with friends in person

Moving more internally, on an emotional level, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. While some kids said using social media made them feel less lonely (25%), less depressed (16%), less anxious (12%), or more confident (20%), a whopping 70% sometimes felt excluded online while 43% felt bad about themselves if their posts didn’t get many likes/comments. Throw in the 35% of kids who claim to have been cyberbullied, and it’s clear that social media can easily take a toll on young users’ souls.

Learn, Then Leverage
Social media, like many other things in life, can be applied positively or negatively. As parents and youth workers, we love the accessibility and entertainment social media affords, but we hate the sting it can bring. We might be tempted to throw the baby out with the bath water, but that may not be helpful…or even possible. Fortunately, we don’t have to chuck our kids’ iPhones in the river, cancel their mobile contracts, and move them into a monastery to protect them from unhealthy social media use. The answer can be much simpler.

1. Learn as much as you can about the social media platforms your kids use. When new faces appear in our kids’ circle of friends, we do a little homework to find out what sort of influence the new kid could have on our own kid. The same holds true for social media. If your kid loves Snapchat – as many kids do – then invest some time into studying the features, the uses, and the pitfalls associated with it. Social media will be a constant in our kids’ lives for years to come even though it will constantly change over time. Learn all you can about social media so you can…

2. Learn how social media affects your child. The influence social media has on kids can vary as much as the kids themselves. Theoretically, no one knows your kids better than you, so observe whether or not your kids’ use of social media cause any changes, and whether those changes are positive or negative. For example:

  • Does social media truly connect your kid to others…or does it isolate your kid?
  • Does it promote healthy self-esteem…or destroy it?
  • Are your kids establishing healthy relationships…or are they being terrorized by bullies?If Instagram motivates your kid to improve her photography skills, then encourage that. If he feels continually deflated after checking Instagram, then invite yourself into the situation to discuss it.

3. Help your kids manage their social media use. We all know there are many risks associated with social media use: the presence of sexual predators, the possibility of cyberbullying, the risk of isolation, the rise of depression and anxiety, the interruption of sleep, the certainty of wasted time, and more. But social media can import good into kids’ lives…if managed correctly. So help your teenager set guidelines regarding all aspects of usage: time, place, duration, etc. It’s easier to manage social media up front than to solve the problems it creates in the aftermath.

Essentially, you need to learn all you can about social media and the effect it has on your kids so you can leverage that knowledge into action for your kids. That strategy will apply no matter how social media changes in the future.


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David R. Smith

David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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