It used to be that teens wanted to be liked by their peers. Now, they just want "likes."
"Popularity has always been important for preteens and adolescents," says Maureen Villasenor, MD, a board-certified pediatrician at St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group. "Now that kids spend so much time on social media, the gauge of peer acceptance has become the number of tags and replies to their Facebook posts or how many hearts their photos earn on Instagram. So that can become a source of anxiety and depression--not just if a teen thinks he or she doesn't get enough online attention, but the pressure to cultivate an online persona that other kids may approve of, even if it doesn't reflect the teen's true nature."
In fact, teen brains are predisposed to crave social media likes. A recent study in the journal Psychological Science found that seeing likes on photos triggered the same parts of the brain that were associated with pleasure and reward. Also, the teens who participated in the study were influenced by likes on photos they were shown--the more likes a photo had, the greater chance the teens would give it their stamp of approval as well. "Social media holds great sway over young people, so it's important that parents set up guidelines for online activity," Dr. Villasenor says.
- Set limits. "If teens spend a great deal of time online, they can feel more pressure to always be 'on'--checking their social media accounts, texting, posting and seeing what others are posting on their pages," Dr. Villasenor says. "That can lead to anxiety. Kids need time to relax, to focus on other pursuits. Make house rules, such as no screens in the bedroom or at the kitchen table, or designate a certain amount of screen time each day. They need to spend time living their social life offline."
- Encourage face-to-face time with friends. "People tend to communicate differently online than they do when they are talking to each other in person," Dr. Villasenor says. "There are cues people give with their facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice that tell others what they are feeling. Those are things that can't be grasped online, and teens can miss out on developing those communication skills if they don't have enough interpersonal interactions. Parents should open up their homes and let their kids know they can bring friends over--and at any group gathering, parents should collect the teens' cell phones, returning them when the friends leave."
- Keep communication open. "Parents should know what their child is looking at on social media," Dr. Villasenor says. "That can be done in a couple of ways. Parents can require their kids to 'friend' them on social media accounts so the parents can see the feeds. And parents can make a point to talk often with their children about what the kids post, and see, online. Parents should show interest and ask questions, establishing that they are invested in this aspect of their child's lives. Finally, parents should encourage their children to talk with them about any troubling or inappropriate content or cyberbullying."
- Dedicate time to developing hobbies or skills. "Children who have talent or interest in something, such as sports, art or music, can develop a sense of self-worth and confidence, which can help guard them against comparing themselves negatively to others who seem to have the perfect life online," Dr. Villasenor says. "They can also meet peers with like interests and make friends that way."
- Follow the same rules as the kids. "Parents who are constantly online checking their Facebook accounts are setting an example for their kids, and not in a good way," Dr. Villasenor says. "Quality family time is important for everyone, so have the screens off as much as possible when everyone is together at home."
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.