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Over time, toxic social media exposure can build up in teens and trigger eating disorders, anxiety attacks, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and other problems.

How can parents prevent digital damage to teens?

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Media Contact: Brian Brus | Agricultural Communications Services | 405-744-6792 |

Social media algorithms can subvert children’s normal social growth patterns and replace them with reinforced negativity about bullying, unrealistic body imagery and depression, Oklahoma State University Extension specialists said.

Fortunately, parents and other caregivers still wield some of the strongest tools to counter damage caused by those digital platforms. But winning the fight won’t be easy.

“It’s about keeping up with our kids’ lives, knowing who they talk to, how it makes them feel, the problems they’re struggling with,” said Rachel Morse, OSU Extension youth mental health specialist. “Sometimes, ultimately, we make our best guess. But as long as parents and guardians show their attention is coming from a place of love and concern, it will make a difference.”

Leaked Facebook documents examined by Congress in early October show company officials knew for years that its Instagram app was making body image issues worse for teenagers, particularly girls.

By its very nature, social media influences users to click hyperlinks to popular material instead of steering away from harmful content, a point emphasized by the Facebook whistleblower. The congressional documents also show company algorithms prioritized angry emoji news posts. Online platforms push content tailored to each user’s profile of online behavior, creating a spiral of self-perpetuating negative interests.

A key difference between the experience of electronic media and face-to-face interactivity is the speed at which it occurs. The smartphone echo chamber never ends, whereas talking with people in real space provides time to reconsider toxic thoughts and allows the opportunity for parents to enter the conversation, Morse said.

Humans are naturally prone to make social comparisons — among family, peers, coworkers and even celebrities — but coping with emotions that accompany those comparisons is a skill that takes a lifetime to hone, said Ron Cox, OSU Extension child and family sciences specialist. As children enter adolescence, they need feedback from peers to help them determine their own identities. That is why they seemingly soak up comments like sponges, both good and bad. It is not a new phenomenon, but it has gotten more problematic since the advent of the internet. Because the internet is always on with such easy access, they become addicted to their friends’ approval.

“Social media has become a fertile ground for kids trying to navigate that stage of development,” Cox said. “Developmentally, they’re trying to figure out, ‘Who am I? And who am I in relation to you?’ They can’t do that in a vacuum.”

When a teen’s emotions take a dark turn, it might be more than an age-appropriate bad mood. Over time, toxic social media exposure can build up and trigger eating disorders, anxiety attacks, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and other problems. Pandemic pressures — health, isolation, uncertainty — have made social media’s influence even tougher to manage.

Being able to assess subtle behavioral shifts requires knowing the child’s or teen’s baseline behavior, which a parent can only develop from conversations, said Laura Hubbs-Tait, OSU Extension parenting specialist. Changes in daily behaviors related to health and safety are important signals to parents to initiate more serious talks with the youth and to seek professional help if the conversation doesn’t reduce parental concerns.

A particularly dangerous aspect of the influence of social media is often referred to as the contagion effect. Like a virus, ideas can spread over the internet, provoking kids to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Cox said research has found spikes in suicide attempts shortly after news of an adolescent committing suicide hits the media.

Parents should be especially vigilant during those times and not be afraid to ask even the toughest question: “Have you been thinking about harming or killing yourself?”

Other tips provided by OSU Extension specialists include:

  • Set online time limits — this is more than a response to a toxic environment; it can also help children learn to manage other interests.
  • Activate electronic parental controls — native apps and third-party developers offer ways to put boundaries on social media use.
  • Talk more — still the most useful approach overall, engaging in meaningful conversation with children face to face lays the foundation for years of good judgment and self-respect.

Also, don’t make social media changes feel like punishments or personal judgments. Focus on the power to make good choices, discuss alternatives and consider consequences, they said.

“Parents need to remember that cutting kids off completely is like keeping them from a necessary developmental process of figuring out who they are,” Cox said. “Don’t forbid all access. Discuss it. Be more involved in your child’s life and help them navigate difficult areas.”

OSU Extension specialists cited several resources that can help parents navigate the challenge, including the nonprofit organizations Center for Humane Technology, Common Sense Media, Childnet International and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

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