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First it was a challenge to remove items from the school bathroom. Then a TikTok challenge urged students to slap a teacher. Next, students were encouraged to bring a weapon to school, prompting some schools across the country to shut down for a day and forcing others to increase security measures.
While social media sites like TikTok, Snapchat or Facebook helped fill the need for social connection during this pandemic, we’ve also seen the negative side. As more teenagers have turned to social media, they've became more emboldened in their comments or actions.
Take the TikTok challenges, for example. Just a month or so into the new school year, students were challenged to remove items from their school bathrooms. In the days that followed, schools reported an increase in vandalism at their schools, particularly in the bathrooms. Some schools had to limit access to school restrooms to address the vandalism.
School administrators not only found themselves dealing with an increase in fights among students, but also the videos of those fights that inevitably appear on social media feeds moments after the fight.
Life as a teenager is difficult enough under normal circumstances. Add to it the challenges since the pandemic began and it’s easy to understand why we’re seeing more anxiety among students and more students acting out. Plus, growing research suggests that the prolonged use of social media can increase feelings of anxiety and inadequacy — especially in young people.
So what can we do?
First, look at the core reason why teens are using social media. Some may crave the approval of their peers. Others may be seeking fame and hope to be the next social media sensation. Some may just be looking to connect with friends.
Teens live in that “in between” state of life where they feel like grown-ups, but their brain is still developing. The prefrontal cortex, that area of the brain that helps with decision-making and understanding consequences, is not fully developed until the mid-20s. This contributes to teens often making choices without considering the consequences.
It is often why we hear adults comment about how grateful they are that social media was not around when they were teens due to not wanting their choices to be immortalized online.
As we work with teens struggling to find their path, we can help them examine the motivators behind their actions and encourage them to find some balance in their social media use and how they interact with others.
Rather than looking to the latest TikTok challenge to gain likes or views, talk to teens about what they value and if that challenge moves them toward their values or away from them.
For example, if your child has a strong value of respect and they vandalize a bathroom, this action likely does not support their value of respect and may result in negative feelings about themselves. Steering your child toward activities that support the values that are important to them can help improve their self-worth.
Helping teens find safe ways to increase their interactions with others, rather than through a social media app, can also be helpful in moving them away from the negative influence of social media and find balance in their life.
Listen to this Health 360 with Dr. G podcast episode: Social media and kids: what’s healthy, what’s harmful?
Worried about your anxious teen? Get support from Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.
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