My first ever Instagram post was a photo of my UGG boots. It wasn’t a cute one, with a cosy fireplace or lit-up bookshelf in the background. Just an overly filtered and embarrassingly saturated close up that filled the screen with “UGG.” My sister posted a Google image of a pug with the caption “loving pugs.” It was weird, but that wasn’t so much a bad thing then.
We couldn’t have predicted the pre-posting anxiety that now makes us drop our phones and run away after uploading. The way that trends tip over within a few days, and no matter how many times you take the same photo, it’ll never look like that Pinterest inspo pic. Somehow being “aesthetic,” ironically, means trying really hard to look like you’re not trying at all. Then there’s that gnawing worry that if you don’t check TikTok today, you’ll feel left out of the group chat banter.
Social media has been around for long enough that we’ve started to piece together the impact it’s having on young people. We know that despite the digital connectedness, it can leave teenagers feeling lonelier than ever. More often than not, people close social media tabs ringing with insecurity, anxiety and depressive thoughts.
Teenagers know this. They’ve been taught it, yes, but they’ve also lived this.
So why do they stay? Stereotypes point towards vanity or pure addiction. But this doesn’t acknowledge the amount of social pressure teenagers are under to stay relevant.
Headspace survey points to FOMO
New research from the Headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation reveals half of young people want to disconnect from social media and 44% agree that the content they see is more negative than positive. In the surveyed group for Headspace, 31% of young people felt pressure to use social media to keep up with news and current events.
Headspace CEP Jason Trethwan says young people thinking of logging off “might experience a fear of missing out on news, popular culture or conversations with friends,” and that “they may also worry about how going offline could impact their status or influence.”
“Twitter” and “Threads” battle for attention
The threat of FOMO is locking teens to the screen, and social media companies depend on it. In 2023, attention is treated like a scarce commodity businesses are tripping over themselves to get. The more attention, the more money. Social media platforms are at war with each other to grab users’ gaze, and there’s no better example than the buzz around this week’s launch of the “Twitter Killer,” Threads.
Threads is a sparkling new app from the Meta team that made Instagram. It’s a near-clone to Twitter as a text-based conversation app that allows short posts or updates up to 500 characters. You can also post links, photos and videos up to 5 minutes long. It’s integrated with Instagram so you can transfer over your username, bio, followers and verification status.
Ahead of the app dropping, there was already an escalating rivalry between the Meta and Twitter teams. It was predicted that Threads might bring an end to Twitter. One Meta executive was even reported telling employees that Threads would operate as a “sanely run” alternative to Twitter.
Threads garnered 30 million downloads in its first few hours, and Elon Musk is not happy. In fact, he threatened to sue Meta in a published letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerburg.
Another app, another chance you’ll miss out
With so many downloads and users signing up, the arrival of Threads presents the very threat to teenagers that Headspace warns of. There’s a whole new platform for different memes, jokes, trends, and news stories that they might be missing out on. It means that they could start missing punchlines in TikTok videos and fall behind on popular sayings. That might not seem like a big deal, but the line between the online world and the “real” world is getting blurry. Being left out online could very much lead to feeling left out in person.
Elon Musk knows this. That’s why he’s threatened. That’s why every social media company is in a race to draw in as much attention as possible. They’ll add whatever features or updates necessary, pay however many influencers they need, to make their platform “unmissable.”
Social media is counting on your FOMO, and that’s why young people are finding it so hard to leave.
So, how can parents help?
With all that being said, there are ways you can help your teen catch a digital break without banning social media completely.
As said in the Headspace study, kids are a lot more open to taking breaks than you might think. But approaching the conversation openly and empathetically is important. Teens, in particular, are used to being defensive about their social media use from a lot of stereotypes, so show them that you’re curious about their experience, rather than judgemental. The Headspace study is a great talking point to see if they relate.
You’ll want to brainstorm strategies that help strike a balance for them, so we’ve made a list of some good places to start.
Set screen time limits
Did you know that Instagram actually lets you set a limit for how much time you spend in the app? If you go into settings, there’s a section called “time spent.” This tool allows you to see your daily average amount of time on Instagram and schedule a reminder to either take breaks or close the app completely.
If you want to set a phone-wide limit, both Apple and Android phones have options for that in their settings.
Decide when to put down devices
Getting into the habit of knowing when to disconnect from social media will make it a lot easier to limit phone usage. You could decide to do it before sleeping, during meals, or when friends or family are over. Times that are ok to go online could be when taking a break between homework.
Turn off notifications
Make a choice about which apps need notifications and which don’t. Notifications can drag your child into apps they might not have checked otherwise, acting as a reminder of all the stuff they’re missing out on. You could also encourage them to use a separate messaging app to their social media apps, like using Facebook messenger instead of Instagram direct message because you don’t need to go through Facebook to access it.
One screen rule
It’s getting harder and harder for people to focus on one screen at a time. If your teen has a habit of being on their phone whilst watching TV, talk about creating a limit for one screen at a time. This helps improve their attention span and keep them off scrolling.
Now that you know how hard it can be for your tweens to step away from social media, showing that you support them without holding judgment can be huge in breaking the cycle. Work with them to find solutions for their mental health while making sure they still feel included and connected. It’s just a matter of finding the balance for your family.
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