eNewsletter - February 2022

How COVID-19 Has Impacted The Engagement of Social Media in Teens 
By: Jessica Butts, LSCW

First it was a challenge to remove items from the school bathroom. Then a TikTok challenge urged students to slap a teacher. More recently, 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.

The return to school after more than a year of remote learning for many students has come with its challenges as students, teachers and staff adjust to in-person learning while still dealing with COVID-19 concerns. 

In the early days of the pandemic, our busy schedules and in-person interactions came to a screeching halt as we faced lockdowns and isolation. The COVID-19 vaccine helped return us to a sense of normalcy, but the recent uptick in COVID cases has once again raised concerns and anxiety.

To say that life since the pandemic began has been challenging is an understatement. As many students returned to in-person learning this school year, were seeing just how much of an impact the pandemic has had on them. 

Life as a teenager is difficult enough under normal circumstances. Add to it the challenges since the pandemic began and its easy to understand why were seeing more anxiety among students, more students acting out, and more students reporting difficulty adjusting to life back at school.

As teens dealing with anxiety or the withdrawal from personal interactions look for other ways to connect, social media sites like TikTok, Snapchat or Facebook fill the gap. It is true that those sites have helped fill the need for social connection during times of isolation in this pandemic. Friends hosted online game nights or dance parties, and extended families connected online to celebrate the holidays.

We’ve also seen the negative side as more teenagers have turned to social media sites and 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 find 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.

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 to improve their self-worth.

Helping teens find safe ways to increase their interactions with others can also be helpful in moving them away from the negative influence of social media. And while being in-person may cause some anxiety, working with teenagers to find ways to safely interact with others in-person, rather than through a social media app, can help them find balance in their life.