Why Teens are so Attracted to Social Media

Often we are asked, “Why are youth so attracted to social media?” This is not an easy question to answer, but we have been able to identify five specific reasons:

#1) Entertainment. YouTube to our kids is just like a TV cable channel to us adults.  Teens will turn to social media for news, entertainment, create memories, learn new skills, and laugh and cry.

#2) Information. Where we adults would utilize a library to conduct research and to find information, teens today use Google, Wikipedia, or just ask Siri.

#3) It’s a personal space to call their own. Teens love the fact that many social media platforms are often free from the peering eyes of parents and other adults. We need to be reflective as parents, do you remember when we were teens we wanted to get as far away from our parents as possible. We did this by going to a friend’s place or hooking up with friends to go to a movie or to play basketball.  Teens today are doing the same thing, it’s just that they are doing it digitally.

#4) To Socialize.  Teens love to socialize with other teens and what better place to do this than using social media which allows them to do so 24/7. Today’s online teen is all about finding community!

#5) Monetization/iFandom. We met a teen who stated that he didn’t have to work a paper route to make money, he made money by monetizing his YouTube channel.

As a social scientist, Dr. Danah Boyd stated in her great book “It’s Complicated”

“Teens hang out, gossip, flirt, people watch, joke around, and jockey for status.  These dynamics are at the heart of teen life… so they relish any opportunity to log in and engage with peers online”

From a brain development standpoint, Dr. Sherry Turkle from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stated,

“..they have a brain that is wired for what in psychology is called seeking behavior, the kind of thing that a Google search gives you, something new, something stimulating, something different”

In their great book “Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing” authors and researchers Emily Weinstein and Carrie James stated:

“Teens are primed to crave and value social validation, which is part of how they make sense of where they fit into their social worlds.  Their biological sensitivities to social feedback make them more susceptible to the pull of social media, which is at the ready with a promise of 24/7 access to likes and praising comments.  Capacities for self-regulation and impulse control are also a work in progress during the teen years, which adds to the challenges of pulling away”

Based upon the good sociological and psychological research to date, we believe that the reason why social media is so popular with teens comes down to three basic needs that they relish,

  1. It’s all about curiosity
  2. The joy of discovery, and
  3. Peer engagement.

So Is Social Media Good or Bad for Our kids:

To answer this question, we would like to use the analogy of a hammer.  A hammer can be used as a blunt force weapon to cause damage to property or body, or it can be used to build or support creativity and solve problems.  Social media is no different. We would suggest that most teens are using social media in a positive way, to build and support creativity, and to solve problems, as will be demonstrated later in this e-book.

The Teen Brain on Social Media:

Most parents understand that the part of a teen’s brain that says, “stop, don’t do what you are about to do” is called the pre-frontal cortex. Brain science has shown us that this part of the human brain is not fully developed until a person is in their early 20’s. If you combine this fact with the brain’s “ventral striatum” (a vital part of the circuitry for decision making and reward-related behavior) it’s no wonder that this underdevelopment can create a perfect storm in teens. The decisions they make are often based upon emotion, rather than cognitive thinking and judgment.  This emotional response can often lead to imperfect decisions socially, emotionally, and even sexually. It is not uncommon to hear a parent say to their teen, “why would ever do that”  or, “That was a really stupid thing to do.” Why? Maybe it’s because of their underdeveloped prefrontal cortex.  Often teens live for the here and now and do not reflectively think about, “if I do this, then this is what may happen in the future” This is why compounding the safety, security, privacy and digital literacy messages in this e-book are so important.  Teens often call this parental nagging. Yes, that is exactly what it is, but the research has shown that compounding important messages helps to imprint important concepts in a teen’s brain.

This is especially important when it comes to youth under the age of 13yrs.  Most social media platforms and apps require that youth must meet the minimum age of 13yrs to join their platforms. Many parents are not aware of this fact; a 2022 UK research study found:

“Just four in ten parents of 3-17s knew the minimum age requirement for using most social media; 42% correctly said 13. Four in ten parents of 8-11-year-olds said they would allow their child to use social media (38%)” https://bit.ly/3wWeOXL 

In a 2021 report from Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan found that half of children 10-12yrs and one-third of children 7-9 years are using social media apps in clear violation of these apps’ Terms of Service. https://bit.ly/3DtBpfh  This increased use of social media, in all its forms, is also reflected in Common Sense Media report where they found “On average, 8- to 12-year-olds use about five and a half hours of screen media per day” https://bit.ly/36Aztpy In a 2022 UK report titled, “Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes” they found “A majority of children under 13 had their own profile on at least one social media app or site; 33% of parents of 5-7s said their child had a profile, and 60% of 8-11s said they had one.” https://bit.ly/3wWeOXL

Parenting Tip:

Yes, teen brains are not fully developed when it comes to critical thinking.  However, it has been our experience that way more adults, with fully developed brains, are doing things online that are more mean, hateful, and criminal, and with far greater frequency, than there are teens. We need to be careful that we are not placing the blame solely on brain development, without considering other external factors, such as the dis-inhibition effect of technology that we will speak to in this web-book!

Yes, onlife risks and opportunities go hand in hand.  The goal for parents and caregivers is to show youth how to manage those risks, based upon facts, not fear, and how to positively leverage the opportunities.  This is what we strive to accomplish in all our social media safety and digital literacy programs here at the White Hatter, and what we hope to share with you in this web book.

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