Facebook - when it makes your teenager feel worse, and when it makes them feel better

I'm not a statistician but I can say with confidence that roughly 100% of teenagers use social networking sites :)

By social networking sites I'm talking about those apps and programs which teens use to share videos, memes, thoughts and photos - and to communicate with others.

Most typically this is facebook and instagram, but there are many others.

As parents and carers, it's easy to see these sites as either "all good" (everyone uses it, our teens are fine) or "all bad" (these are terrible sites and they make our teens feel terrible, and expose them to conflict and undesirable adult content).

The truth is more complicated and it takes more time to tease out.

There are quite a few disadvantages of social networking for teens, but also some advantages. In this blog, I'm just going to look at the advantages and disadvantages for teens in terms of how social networking affects their mood.

What the research is starting to tell us is that social networking can make teenagers feel good - reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and make them feel more positive about life - AND it can also make them feel bad - increase stress, anxiety and depression.

Let's look at this in a little more detail.

When teenagers use facebook to actively communicate with their friends, organise social events and seek out support from their friends - and they get positive responses from others - they feel good.  This can make teens feel good about themselves, feel good about friendships and reduce daily stress, anxiety and even reduce levels of depression.

This makes sense.  

Friendships, conversation and social connections have always made humans feel better. This works online just as well as it does offline.

However, when teenagers passively spend time on facebook - scrolling and reading - without actively commenting or messaging - then they often feel worse.  This may be partly due to something called "social comparison", where teens are noticing other people having fun, looking better than them (so they believe) and being together, and they feel worse about themselves in comparison.  Research also shows that teens also may feel, after a period of time that they have spent "meaningless" time on facebook, which goes on to make them feel worse (this is the "I'm wasting my life away on facebook" feeling which many of us can relate to at times!).  Finally, if teens do seek out actively seek out social support on facebook - and don't get it - then they also feel more depressed.

So as you can see, social networking sites don't consistently makes teens feel better or worse - it depends on how they feel initially, what they do on these sites and how much they are supported online.

Pretty much like friendships in real life.

What can we do as parents and carers of young people?  Here are a few ideas:

1. Help teens be aware of the dangers of facebook in reducing their mood.  Explain how sometimes social networking can make us feel worse - either by us comparing ourselves to others, feeling like we are wasting time or by being rejected or not supported by others.

2. Help teens be aware that facebook can make them feel better.  Explain that sometimes social networking can reduce stress and depression - by helping us connect with other people, conversing with others and feeling supported.

3.  Encourage them to use social networking sites actively rather than passively.  Ask them to limit their passive "scrolling/reading" time - and instead make comments, "like" and share content - and this is particularly useful if they have online friends who are likely to respond to it.

4.  Ask them to think about how likely it is (on any particular day) that either of the two will occur.  Are you likely to have a good conversation with a friend?  Are there people online that you think may support you or respond to you?  Then maybe social networking is a good idea for you right now.  Is it likely that no-one may respond to you?  Is it likely that you are going to make comments and no-one responds?  Then maybe social networking is NOT a good idea right now.

5.  Encourage them to OFFER social support online.  Be generous with comments, likes and shares where possible.  Respond to messages from friends where possible.  We need to build up a community of young people who look out for each other online.

6. Help teens be aware of the negative mood that might happen via social comparison online.  Remind them of the way people post - their friends will be mostly posting only the very flattering photos (and using photo editing apps), they will be posting the best version of their weekends and making comments about the most positive aspects of their friendships.  This is not real life.   Ask them how they can deal with feeling bad about themselves when they are online.

7.  Help teens be aware of the negative mood that might happen for them when they feel left out/not supported online.  Help them think about what they can do when this happens.

8.  As you can see, it's vital for us as parents and carers to be cautiously positive about social networking with teens.  Teens ARE going to use social networking and they need help in navigating this world.  If we dismiss it out of hand we can't provide this help.