group of teenagers looking at phones

I was asked by a local high school to run a therapy group for teens who had been caught using marijuana for the first time. The idea was to mandate 8 group therapy sessions instead of suspension with the goal of educating and hopefully preventing further use. During the 8 weeks, I got to witness the social interactions among these 8 teenagers and what I saw was pretty eye-opening.

We all know that teens today are addicted to their smartphones and to social media. Whether they are tweeting, posting on Instagram or Snapchatting, kids use their social media accounts up to 100 times a day. The preferred mode of communication for this generation is online or text messaging. Making phone calls has become as obsolete as playing capture the flag on a hot summer night, and face to face, personal communication? Well, for these kids that seems to have a difficulty rating equal to passing their driving test the first time.

The prevalence of anxiety and depression among teens is higher in my practice than ever before which is consistent with the general population of 12-17 year olds. National statistics on depression among teenagers indicate a rise from 8.7% in 2005 to 12.5% in 2015. Self esteem is notably lower for this generation of 12-17 year olds and substance abuse is on the rise. While there are many positive things about social media, there are questions we should be asking ourselves about the potentially harmful effects of excessive social media use.

Social media has the power to significantly distort one’s view of self, making it even more difficult for teens to authentically figure out who they really are. It is a challenge to avoid comparing yourself to your peers on social media. When one’s value as a person is linked to the number of “likes” and “followers” you have, it can be tempting to conform by adjusting or deleting posts and replacing them with ones more aligned with social expectations.

Comparing oneself to others is normal, especially in adolescence, but constant access to the arbitrary judgements of others is not healthy.

A friend of mine is an admissions director at a state university and I asked for her observations. There are many noticeable changes in the college interview setting since she started in 2001. Difficulty maintaining eye contact is now the norm instead of a passing unremarkable moment with a nervous teen. Questions about likes, dislikes, and hobbies have gone from conversation starters to conversation stoppers and responses to the typical interview questions like “Why do you want to attend….college?” are often met with rehearsed, seemingly memorized and robotic responses. She shared that the college interview has become less useful overtime and that getting to know these kids in this setting simply doesn’t seem to work as well as it used to.

Now, back to the pot smoking teens in group therapy. Except for the shared experience of getting busted with marijuana, they had few things in common. They were in different sports, clubs, ranged in age from 17-14, and varied in family make up. Each and every one of these kids, however, struggled with relating socially to one another, something I have seen with increased prevalence over my 20 year career. Eye contact, not only with me as the only adult in the room but also with each other. They rarely spoke directly to each other, in fact, I think I only heard one kid call another by his actual name once the entire time, and the reason they all gave for why they tried weed in the first place? They hoped it would help them to feel less stress. When I asked what stressed them the most? They all said that dealing with the expectations of others caused them anxiety, depression and stress.

The problem might not be social media itself, but the imbalance of time spent socializing online versus face to face social engagement, is a likely contributor to the apparent change in social skills development among adolescents.

Lessons and skills learned while engaging with other people, live and in person are invaluable.

If you only need to swipe left to get a date, you won’t learn from stumbling over your words and awkwardly asking someone out in person. Before smart phones, waiting at the bus stop provided an opportunity to practice socializing, but today, these opportunities for learning and growth are traded for another 10 minutes of screen time.

Believe it or not, these tiny threads of life’s moments, woven together, create the fabric and foundation of social skills and self esteem. Interpersonal skills are necessary in adulthood, and excessive screen time is likely having a negative effect on the digital generation.

The opportunities to learn the basics of social engagement are lost to the screens and media that now fuel socializing.

We are raising a generation of kids with lower self esteem, higher levels of anxiety and depression, and lack social skills. We need to be smarter in helping kids to balance live, face to face socializing with social media use.

Monitoring how much time your preteen or teen is spending on social media is the only way you as a parent will know if their use is out of balance with real life social interactions.

If “likes” and “followers” define self worth, won’t we end up with a generation of adults whose identity is a mirror of cultural expectations and whose self worth has been assigned value based on the opinions of others?

Be the smartest parent you can be and stay on top of what your kids are doing in cyberspace.