February 27, 2023
Dr. Jill Walsh is a sociologist who studies how teens use digital spaces to shape their identities. In Adolescents and Their Social Media Narratives, she explores how students create “personal fables” by curating pictures and posts that reflect an idealized self and affirm their social belonging. Teens spend extraordinary amounts of time on “impression management work” to curate and share what Dr. Walsh terms the “highlights reel” of their lives.
But while digital spaces like Instagram and Snapchat allow students a way to connect, they are also a source of stress. Busily fabricating their best selves through prescribed “rules” designed to make those idealizations appear authentic, teens then closely track the feedback they receive. They interpret comments and likes as “visible representations” of where they stand and who they are. This sifting of feedback is a “very private experience”—one they often endure alone.
Middle schoolers undergo this challenging, often frightening experience just as they are figuring out who they are and who they want to be; this makes them particularly vulnerable to the highs and lows that come with interacting on social media.
No wonder parents worry about the anxiety their tweens may experience when scrolling through the “selfies” and the “wealthies” that predominate in such spaces. Parents also worry about the FOMO (fear of missing out) that results when kids see photos of others’ activities. At the same time, kids themselves see their digital spaces as an important way to affirm their identities and connect with friends.
Because social media presents so many challenges and because it isn’t going away any time soon, I interviewed Dr. Walsh about how we can help our Middle School students navigate this digital world with an eye toward protecting their mental health. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
- You write in your book that cultivating an online narrative about the self is an important part of identity formation today. Why is that? I don’t think that social media is uniformly positive or negative for our kids. Everyone in adolescence goes through identity formation. I went to school with plenty of people who changed their clothes after leaving their houses or who changed their friendships often. Digital spaces are now a normal pathway for this identity work. The challenge today is that the identity work is done face-to-face as well as within digital spaces.
- What pressures do students encounter when curating their social media narratives? They are under a lot of social pressure to present a more fully realized version of themselves; this self feels more permanent because digital presentations are lasting. They also have the added pressure to have pictures or videos do well. They pay attention to views and comments. They are definitely keeping track of the numbers. In earlier generations, we could get a sense of how funny a remark was by seeing others laugh, but we weren’t counting. Now, kids are getting peer validation in a quantitative way: “status by accumulation.”
- You’ve stated that our brains are wired for upward comparisons. Could you explain what you mean by that and how that impacts students’ experiences with social media? Upward comparison is a part of both our offline and online lives. It is not unique to teens or the social media era. The people who create algorithms know this, so they make sure upward comparisons are in our line of sight. When I’m online, the algorithms will ensure I see the influencers in my age range and demographic group. They are aware that these comparisons make us feel worse, but they don’t care. They could fix this but choose not to because they are guided by an economic model.
- When parents notice that their child feels sad after viewing social media, what can they do to help? Adolescents struggle with processing emotions. They feel emotions more strongly, and peer validation is really important to them. Having these qualities and interacting with social media produces the perfect storm. But we don’t all respond the same way. Some kids are crippled by social comparisons and some kids get over it really fast. Ask your kids what they find the hardest. Have them interact on those sites for a shorter period of time. Less is always better and choices should be individually driven.
- You have said that group texts are both wonderful and awful. What do you mean? As kids respond in the moment, they are doing their best at simulating a face-to-face conversation. Because independent school students may live far away from one another, the group text offers a connection on a Friday night, for example.
The downside is group texts can go wrong. Some kids can’t keep up and aren’t sure how to insert themselves. They feel pressure to respond with the right comment. Kids sit and try to formulate what to say. These texts can quickly become mean and hurtful, and while this has always happened, it’s spiked since the pandemic as kids are expressing more social insecurity. Adults aren’t models either. There’s a broader confusion about how we should treat one another. Humor right now is of the take-down sort, and snarky comments are typical.
- You’ve warned that algorithms can nudge kids towards extreme content. What can parents do to help kids who may encounter extreme content online? The algorithms push kids with the best intentions towards extreme content, whether that’s pornography or hate speech. Parents need to be open to the conversation rather than judgmental. Be prepared for that eventuality and be open about talking with them.
- You feel strongly that phones should not be in students’ bedrooms at night. Can you explain why? First, the blue light from a phone sets off the circadian rhythm, making us feel more awake. That’s real. But there are other reasons. Kids are tired and then see a disturbing group text or a video on TikTok. At noon, if they saw it, they would not be as impacted. At midnight, they are much less resilient. When they’re exhausted, they can’t bounce back, which also keeps them up. Finally, because phones promote an “always on” culture, kids could be Snapping all night. They feel the need to give immediate responses. The phone is just too tempting to have in the bedroom before bed.
- You’ve cautioned students not to become their friends’ mental health counselors online. How can parents help with this? Kids don’t know the difference between being a supportive friend and being a counselor. Parents should have a conversation about what the difference looks like for them as adults. Once kids understand the distinction, parents can help them create boundaries. These boundaries will look different depending on the kid. Some may feel comfortable asking a friend for space; others might feel better making their parent the bad person by using an excuse to disengage, like “my mom took my phone.” In addition, parents can make themselves a resource by asking their kids to tell them when a friend is talking about serious issues like disordered eating or depression. Parents can then share the information with the appropriate adults.
- You recommend that parents help kids develop mindfulness around their use of social media. How can they do that? Most kids don’t know what platforms work best for them. Ask them which platforms are fun and easy. Ask them which ones are challenging. Do this metacognitive work. I myself can get sucked into comparisons when I’m on Instagram, but I don’t have that problem on YouTube.
Time limits are very helpful. I suggest 20 to 30 minutes max in one sitting. From the brain research, it seems that the positive effects from social media—like dopamine and connection—hit us early. It’s with more time that comparisons set in. This is not a cure all, but it does allow for some benefits while minimizing the challenges.
- You’ve stated that this is a generation that’s losing its inner life. What do you mean by that? Time for reflection is critical to adolescent development. Kids need to have conversations with themselves to become more self-aware. Do I feel good about how I acted? Do I like these friends? If kids are putting their AirPods in or looking at phones every second when they’re alone, they are distracting themselves from their own thoughts. They are not allowing their minds time to wander. Parents should encourage quiet time, time to recharge. Maybe it’s during the ride home or the time before dinner. Kids need time to be alone with their thoughts.
Long before social media, Pascal famously said that “all of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” But as Dr. Walsh rightly notes, our difficulties in doing so have increased exponentially in the age of social media. Our phones aren’t going away. Our challenge, for ourselves and our kids, is to ensure that we learn how to use them without disappearing into them.
You may also be interested in reading another article written by Elaine Griffin.