sPublic health data point to a real crisis in adolescent mental health: High rates of anxiety, depression and despair. But as we worry about tweens and teens suffering, we can’t ignore the other growing tolls—the burdens that their friends and peers carry in the “always” world.
We’ve studied teens and technology for more than a decade. Still, what we learned in it Our latest study We stopped in our tracks. We’ve collected the perspectives of more than 3,500 teens on the best and toughest parts of growing up in a networked world, and we’ve interpreted these perspectives along with other teens who helped us understand what we’re hearing.
Here’s what they told us: Their networks are constantly expanding, in no small part because there is a feeling that by default, being “nice” means accepting follow requests from acquaintances and friends of friends. We often tell teens not to connect with strangers, but we ignore the intricacies of staying in touch with anyone and everyone they meet. Teens tell us, “I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings if I can’t keep in touch with them.” And it’s not just about staying in touch – it’s keeping up with what others are posting, too.
Evidence from both humans and primates It indicates that we have a natural ability to limit our social networks. Today, apps like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter make it easy to maintain more connections at a lower cost in terms of investing time. But perhaps the very structure of our brains is why we’ve fallen behind the same average network size throughout history. You may have heard of Dunbar Number It represents the number of individuals with which humans can maintain stable relationships. Prepare yourself: it’s 150 (only)! Thus, social media platforms make it technically possible to “maintain” more relationships than we have historically been made to track and manage. The result is a water hose immersion in social information. It is especially intense for Adolescents with developmental sensitivities Get them to pay close attention to what their peers are doing and thinking.
How can parents and adults help? It’s tempting to criticize teens’ sensitivity to social influences or catch our eye when they’re obsessed with their friends’ locations on Snapchat’s Snap Map. But these reactions give teens a sense that we don’t “understand” them, blocking the dialogue rather than opening the conversations teens need.
We’ve seen firsthand that the combination of genuine curiosity, empathy, and validation is a magic formula. Ask questions like, “What does it mean to be able to see where your friends are all the time? Are there times when it helps? Are there times when it’s hard?” Then follow up with validation statements like, “I can see how that helps you.” in staying connected, but also how it can make you feel left out.” When we take this path, teens keep talking — and we keep learning. They are also more inclined to actually listen to the advice we should share. Moreover, asking teens real questions gives them space to reflect on their connected lives. This builds a kind of metacognitive awareness, which the otherwise quick and intelligent design features of apps undermine at almost every turn.
Teens tell us about the huge pressures that come with trying to be a “good friend” in the age of social media, too. Friendship requires public support and behind the scenes. Even before a social media post is published, close friends can be drawn into the photo selection, editing and final proofreading. Once posts appear, friends are expected to come forward – and quickly. Likes are minimal. A seventeen-year-old recounted how liking a friend’s post instantly triggered a direct message asking her why she hadn’t commented yet. “Then I have to comment like three times…,” she explained, “and I get really nervous about that too, because I have to think of something quick, and it has to be something really good.”
Another stress is to respond in the “right” way and in the “right” amount of time, which varies from relationship to relationship. Read receipts are included here; Indicates that the message has been “read”. For many teens, the time between reading and replying to a message is important Much. A quick reply can be seen as overly eager, especially when the friendship is new or not close. But when you are a close friend, a very long delay can be painful. One teen told us, “If I don’t keep in touch, the friendship will fall apart.” Second and third anxious guessing of text wording and response times has become a routine part of teen courtship as well.
Teens also told us about the burden of constantly witnessing the mental health struggles of their peers on the public screen via Instagram Stories, TikTok videos, disappearing Snaps, and more. Sure, the “featured video” quality of social media posts – everyone seems to be living their best life – can be tough for some teens. But there is a kind of emotional blow that comes when teens see their peers’ best photos punctuated by cries for help.
Appropriately, the stakes seem high. A fourteen-year-old told us, “What worries me most is that I don’t have enough contact with friends who are struggling…I don’t want my friends to do something bad just because I didn’t respond in time to stop them from hurting themselves or worse.” This is a huge burden on the shoulders of young people, and a feeling we have heard time and time again.
Live stories illustrate how these dynamics can play out. When fifteen-year-old Ali saw her classmate’s Snapchat posts Jaylen alluding to suicidal ideation, she began to get worried. But she struggled to interpret the messages and figure out what to do. After that, Jaylen’s posts became clearer and Ali’s concern turned to panic. I tackled a question we’ve heard in the voice of other teens: What should you do (and who should you tell) if a colleague’s social media posts sound troubling?
The challenge of interpreting social media posts — and speaking out — seems even more important at a time when mass shootings are frequent events and digital evidence of threats is exposed after the fact. In some cases, the publisher’s message is clear as well as their intentions to cause violence. But a lot of what teens see in their daily lives falls into a kind of gray area: they don’t always know what the joke is versus the real threat.
How can adults help teens manage this particular burden? First we need to teach teens to care red flag feelingsAnd even yellow flag feelings: the gut feeling that something is (or might be) off. Next we need to talk to the teens about what they should do an act When they see such publications, which begin to be repeated in others. Ask the teens to identify a few trusted adults they can turn to for help. In Ali’s case, she told her mother, and her mother called Jaylene’s father. They were already in the emergency room, but Jaylen’s mother had no idea Jaylen was posting about his ordeal.
Above all, encourage teens not to scroll or struggle in silence. The burden can be heavy, especially for tender and sensitive children. They should not bear this burden alone. Nor should they put aside their own needs for sleep, joy, and other necessities. So teens who support vulnerable friends may need guidance in setting boundaries that respect their friendships and themselves. How do you tell someone you care And the You are not available around the clock? adults can Help teens find a language that is cute but protects itself on its own It communicates when they need to disconnect. Encouraging teens to help their friends access other sources of support (such as school counselors) is also key.
The adjectives The ones that make or break friendships are in fact the same as they have always been: the mutual sharing of joys and sorrows, the giving and benefit of validation and support, the ability to overcome and resolve conflicts. But the technology has Transformation How to play friendships. Social media increases the burden that comes with a good friend. Oftentimes, these dynamics hit teens hard in ways that adults miss. We need to change that.
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