The One About Teenagers and the Internet

Well this article has been a long time coming, mainly because there is so much research out there on this topic (27,000 Google Scholar articles with the word Facebook in the title!) not to mention all of the conflicting information. I'd like to propose that we look at this article as a starting point in the conversation, with the view of being guided by your comments towards which aspects we might explore next (don't be shy!).

Prepare yourself to settle in for a while, as this is one very long article! At around 4000 words in length it's gone way over my usual 800 word target. For your convenience, I'll be posting a summary of the strategies discussed here within the Coping Toolkit section. Follow this link for the shortcut.

Many of the articles I reviewed when preparing to write this piece were able to successfully weigh up the pros and cons of social media use, many of which revolve around the formation of self-identity and self-esteem. Therefore, before launching into anything else, we need to have an understanding of what self-identity is, how it's formed and the impact social media might have on it.

Dr. Jim Taylor (2012), author of Raising Generation Tech: preparing your children for a media-fuelled world, defines self-identity as, "The totality of knowledge and understanding that children gain about themselves, including: personality; aptitudes and capabilities; intellectual and physical attributes; interests; and relationships."

In short, self-identity encapsulates our individual qualities particularly in relation to social context, not only in the present and future, but also in an ideal way. In the olden days, you know, when we used to walk to school through miles of snow with holes in our shoes, our sense of self-identity was gained through a balanced combination of our own self-observations and a good measure of the feedback we received from the outside world.

As you can imagine, the messages we received at school, home and through all of our experiences with the outside world, came together with our own internal perceptions to give us an overall sense of self - who we are. As an aside, it's very common for adults to enter therapy with the purpose of improving their self-esteem. Without fail as soon as we begin to explore the voices behind all of the negative self-talk, it's often a voice from a person's childhood. It might not have even been a permanent presence, such as that of a parent, but often a passing comment that sticks and remains on repeat in the background of the person's mind for decades doing damage.

But things have changed and today the balance of where we receive this feedback is out of whack thanks largely to a significantly expanded social world that comes to us courtesy of the Internet.

Where we generation X's were lucky to have a home phone to connect us to the outside world once school and extra-curricular activities were finished for the day, today's teenagers stay connected sometimes twenty-four hours a day thanks to social media. Their social worlds are bigger than we ever could have imagined. As a result, the external forces shaping their self-identities are seemingly infinite.

First, they have to contend with popular culture tapping into their most basic needs to feel good about themselves, accepted and approved of. In many ways, pop culture projects this onto young people, telling them what they should believe about themselves, often through providing comparisons to others.

Secondly, technology has changed the expression of self-identity and turned it into a facade building exercise. Teenagers find themselves considering "how can I ensure others view me positively?" which begins to blur the line between the person and the persona (Taylor, 2012). As if navigating adolescence isn't hard enough. This is difficult terrain to navigate and I'm sure any adult reading this has experienced it themselves. Imagine having to negotiate your way through the rest of the curves in the road that adolescence throws up as well. Not to mention, much of the navigating occurs in a public forum.

However, in an article I found on The British Psychological Society's Research Digest APP, called The Psychology of Facebook, Digested, it was argued from findings of a large study across Germany and the US that profiles reflect the actual personality of the person creating the profile and not the ideal self. The paper also reported positive effects on mental health including lower levels of depression and anxiety, a greater sense of connectedness, increased confidence levels, and a greater sense of social support for users of social media.

Within the context of loneliness they found that when connecting with friends on social media, there was less of a sense of loneliness however, if people were connecting with strangers, they were more likely to have a higher sense of loneliness. All of these findings are worth mentioning to your kids, for example, "Did you know that when we talk to our friends online it's better for our mental health than when we talk to strangers? Isn't that fascinating..." Plant seeds of thoughts for them to consider.

When we begin to consider the impact pop culture and the often inappropriate messages sent by society in general regarding identity and self-worth, it's no surprise then that self-esteem and self-worth become relevant to the conversation.

There is a general pattern over our lifespan that sees self-esteem as relatively high throughout childhood, largely due to the unrealistically high self-views of children. This begins to decline as kids become able to base their self-evaluations on information from the outside world and social comparisons, providing them with a more balanced self-view.

The decline continues into adolescence, particularly for girls, maybe due to body image issues and puberty, but also the emerging capacity to think more abstractly about themselves. Social and academic situations also become more challenging around this time.

Adolescence therefore raises red flags because of this natural decline in self-esteem, particularly in relation to the benefits and risks associated with social media use. We'll focus on those points more in a minute.

Luckily for us, self-esteem climbs again throughout adulthood and remains fairly stable until it begins to decline sharply around the age of seventy (Robin & Trzesmenski, 2005). Sadly, that declines makes sense within the context of the major life changes and multiple losses, including the impact of those on self-identity, that occur at that stage of life.

Gangadharbatla (2008) also described the concept of collective self-esteem (social identity) defined as " that aspect of the individual's self-concept which derives from their knowledge of their membership in a social group together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership."

It isn't a stretch for us to consider that engaging with social media sites provides a specific kind of membership to that social group known as {enter site name here} users.

Here are a few definitions to consider:

Membership Self-esteem: A person's judgement of how good or worthy he is as a member of a group

Private collective self-esteem: Evaluation of his group

Public collective self-esteem: How non-members evaluate the group

Importance of identity: How important membership in a group is to a person's identity or self-concept.

So far, we've been building a foundation for our understanding of the impact of social media on our sense of self (self-identity), as well as how this impacts on our self-evaluations, or our self-esteem. But what about the introduction to the world of social media and social networking in particular we have had over the past decade or so? And how does social media affect self-identity and self-esteem?

The Good

Teenager 1

It's certainly not news to us that there's been a dramatic increase in social media use in recent years. We also know that much of this generation's social and emotional development is occurring online and on the phone (O'Keefe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011).

It would be too easy to begin by focussing on the negatives aspects of this topic and then get lost in the fears of what could happen. Instead, I'd like to begin by shining the spotlight on the many, many benefits of our young people engaging in social media networking.

For example, at a stage of life where peer acceptance and approval is a vital part of healthy development, social networking sites clearly provide a forum to connect and stay connected to others. In fact, barriers of time and distance disappear thanks to the ability to access Internet connections in many areas, potentially 24/7. Don't worry parents, I'm not suggesting 24 hour connectivity is a good idea for our young people!

O'Keefe and Clarke-Pearson (2011) highlight the increased opportunities for community engagement and enhancement for creativity that social networking sites offer.

In our local community just recently, a Facebook page raising awareness and money to support a young man just diagnosed with cancer was created by two young students. They managed to raise thousands of dollars in a matter of a few days. Imagine what that has done for their sense of contribution, self-esteem and well-being, knowing that they have helped a mate in such a practical way. Without the reach of the Internet and Facebook in this instance, they may have remained in a state of helplessness instead.

Ideas grow, social skills develop in unique ways and there is great potential for the fostering of one's individual identity through social media.

I have had several socially anxious clients who feel safer expressing themselves through social media than face-to-face. We've even used social media as a tool in our exposure therapy programs to create stepping stones towards more face-to-face interactions.

Not only that, but greater learning opportunities exist, as does access to information, including health information that young people might ordinarily be too embarrassed to seek out. Many secondary schools and universities communicate and teach parts of their programs through social media sites in order to keep students engaged.

In addition, one Dutch study conducted by Valkenburg and colleagues (2006), found that 78% of adolescents predominantly received positive feedback on their posts on social networking sites, which had a positive impact on their self-esteem. Only 7% of their participants received predominantly negative feedback. These figures surprised me, largely in part because the reports I hear from clients would typically be skewed towards the more negative experiences. Why don't people want to tell me their happy stories?

But I wonder if parents also are more likely to focus on the negative stories they hear because the negative stories can have devastating consequences.

Another point made within this Dutch study that I would possibly have not predicted was that participants still valued quality over quantity of friendships, and the number of followers/friends they had on their social networking site did not impact on their self-esteem. My clients seem to have thousands of friends on Facebook - who even knows that many people at 16? What a relief then that this number seems arbitrary!

But of course, there are some downsides.

The Bad & The Ugly

Teenager 2

Here are some statistics from a study that reported feedback from 12-17 year olds, regarding the risks they'd experienced online:

  • 28-44% had seen some kind of pornography online
  • 46% had given out personal information
  • 72% would give out personal information to enter a quiz
  • 36% knew someone only online
  • 9% had met someone face to face from online
  • 33% had received nasty/hurtful comments online

I don't know about you, but some of those statistics are alarmingly high to me.

The accidental online discoveries and the introduction to various new things by friends online can be problematic simply because teenage brains have a limited capacity for self-regulation. This means that aren't as able to monitor and control their own behaviour as well as adults can. Unfortunately, there is usually an expectation by adults that teenage brains operate in the same way as an adult brain does. What this means is that asking your teenager to put the phone down after half-an-hour, probably won't be as easy for them to do as it sounds!

As mentioned previously, due to their developmental need to fit in with their peers, young people are also more susceptible to peer-pressure. This, in combination with the lowered self-regulatory ability, puts adolescents at some risk as they navigate their way around social media.

O'Keefe & Clarke-Pearson (2011) identified the following as potential problems/risk factors: frequent online expressions of offline behaviours such as cyber-bullying, privacy issues and 'sexting'; Internet addiction; sleep deprivation; 'Facebook depression'; digital footprint vulnerabilities; and, underage use.

Social media makes it easy for bullies to target their victims at any hour of the day, either secretly or in public, humiliating them in front of an endless number of witnesses. I've had clients show me messages they've received, usually on Facebook or Snapchat (which has required them to screen-shot the image, as it's designed to disappear instantly - how convenient!). The messages have contained the most horrendous language (and I'm a truck-driver's daughter, so it's not easy to shock me). But most disturbing of all have been the number of messages that go along the lines of "why don't you just go and kill yourself."

Sexting has also been popular, although thankfully, at least among my clientele, seems to have been less prevalent in 2016 than in previous years. Again, considering the vulnerability of our young teenage girls (usually - and they are usually as young as 13 or 14 years old) when their self-esteem is low, they tend to seek validation and worth from external sources. Unfortunately, the source is often a male (usually a little older) and the consequences can be a permanent record of a poor choice, or choices. No matter what image or video the young girl has sent, posted, or act they have had recorded, it is usually accompanied by the absolute surprise that a boy has gone against his promise to not share it with anyone else. Young people are naive, innocent and vulnerable. There's no doubt about it.

I am happy to report that the local schools I work with have always taken any breach of cyber-safety seriously. They proactively educate students and parents alike, and there is always police involvement when appropriate. Sometimes the 'scare' factor is enough and goes a long, long way to preventing future poor choices, which hopefully explains the reduction I've noticed in crisis management for such situations.

Sleep disturbances - The body clock of adolescents is already altered. Add to it the impact of the artificial light of the screens of tablets, laptops and phones, and you end up with a reduction in melatonin, a hormone that assists with sleep, and finally, sleep disturbance. A brain that doesn't get enough sleep is less alert, and has difficulty with things like concentration and memory. No points for guessing what impact that has on academic or occupational functioning.

The Valkenburg study raised another key point that adolescents often engage in "imaginative audience behaviour" where they overestimate the extent to which others are watching and evaluating. We already know that because of their stage of development, teenagers can be extremely preoccupied with how they appear in the eyes of others. Within the context of the online environment, the feedback they receive on their profiles is often public, and because of their public nature, tend to have a direct link to the development of our kids' self-esteem.

Of course, feelings of exclusion and jealousy are also commonly reported when viewing what others are doing on social media. There can be a tendency to misjudge how happy others are by viewing their profiles on Facebook for example, which can lead to lowered mood due to self-comparisons. Once again, discussing these concepts with your teenager will increase their awareness that not all is as it appears. Teach them to critically evaluate the information they receive and view it in a more balanced way.

Much of my work in this area is around educating parents and young people about the stages of their brain development - the importance of aspects of their social functioning and the likelihood of overemphasising certain parts. Perhaps even discussing concepts such as the imaginative audience behaviour might just increase the teenager's awareness that it may be occurring, which hopefully could lead to an adjustment in that behaviour.

See how quickly, the bad outweighed the good?

Let me just reinforce that the majority of social media use does not end with catastrophe and there are ways to minimise the risks.

The Strategies

teenager 3

Often the parents I work with hope that reducing risk will be as simple as restricting their child's Internet use. But if we think about this, the risk remains the same every time the child accesses the Internet. It makes more sense therefore, to develop some strategies that increase the young person's understanding of the risks involved, as well as ways to avoid them.

One of the keys to teaching your young person to respect the Internet and themselves along with it, is for you to validate and respect their need to engage in social media. Acknowledge that it is a valuable part of their social functioning and of their social development. The more you struggle to understand it, or their need to use it, the more likely you are to drive a wedge between not only yourself and them, but you're also more likely to lead them towards using it secretly. Not a situation you want.

In fact, when discussing this issue with a friend, she told me that her teenage son had said to her that he couldn't keep up with one of his friends who has five Facebook accounts. His parents probably know about one of them. This is not uncommon.

I hate to break it to you, but you won't be able to monitor your teenager's use 24/7, so it might be better for you to accept their use and work with it. Drop the struggle.

This might mean that you need to take a crash-course on the sites they use, even creating your own profile to get a grasp on how it works, particularly things like privacy settings which seem to change continually. Being able to educate your young person to set the most appropriate privacy settings to protect their personal information, and reduce the potential for problems with their digital footprint is of high importance.

Teenage brains seem unable to fully grasp the potential for future consequences. They are very good also at having the "it won't happen to me" attitude. Don't take for granted that they think like you. Remember, their brains are not yet fully developed and they don't have all of the executive functioning abilities that adults do.

The good news is this, when parents do set rules and boundaries around social media use, they do reduce risk in the activities they target. Livingstone & Helper (2008) found that on average, parents often implement around eight different strategies including this such as:

  • Monitoring the time spent online
  • Having regular discussions about Internet use
  • Setting clear rules about what the young person cannot do without a parent present
  • Installing filtering/monitoring software
  • Checking sites after their teenager has been online

The only rule in their study that was not shown to reduce the risky activity, was the banning of giving out personal information. It seems that teenagers see the impersonal nature of providing the personal information to enter a quiz or complete a form, as relatively unimportant by contrast with warnings about peer-to-peer interactions. This highlights the need to have specific conversations regarding the potential consequences of sharing personal information such as identity theft. It may also be an idea to separate the topics to be addressed in your conversations with your teenager so as to avoid them confusing the messages you wish to convey.

Australian parenting website, Raising Children (http://raisingchildren.net.au) has some valuable resources on how to survive having a teenager who uses social media sites. Here is the link to the main article I viewed on that page, as well as a summary of their recommendations.

  • Let them know that it's not a good idea to share school, phone number or date of birth on their profile and to maybe use a picture with more than one person in it, or a graphic
  • Make sure your child knows that anything they post might be a permanent part of their online reputation
  • Ask them to think about whether there would be anyone who might be offended by a post or use it to humiliate or bully them or someone else. If you child wouldn't do or say something in front of a live audience, they shouldn't make it a public post - the same goes for images, videos and information about friends
  • Encourage your child to accept friend requests only if they know the person or are sure of the other person's identity
  • Encourage your child to always report abuse
  • If something goes wrong, stay calm and support your child. Work together to sort out the problem
  • Aim for open communication with your child about online behaviour and experiences
  • If your child shows a sudden shift in behaviour, becomes very obsessive about using the internet (preferring it than being with friends) or seems depressed or down, talk with them and listen for what's wrong. If you're concerned, talk to a health professional

Finally, to provide a more optimistic end to the article, several focus groups were consulted to create this list of unwritten rules most users follow when using Facebook. If we hypothesise that most young people using Facebook follow these rules, then everything should be just fine.

  1. I should not expect a response if I post on a user's wall
  2. I should not say anything disrespectful about a person on Facebook
  3. I should consider how a post might negatively impact on a person's relationships
  4. I should not repost a post of mine that someone else deletes
  5. I should communicate with this person outside of Facebook
  6. I should present myself positively and honestly
  7. I should not let Facebook get in the way of me getting my work done
  8. I should not post anything on Facebook that could be used against me
  9. I should use common sense interacting with people on Facebook
  10. I should consider how a post might affect someone's career path
  11. I should wish people Happy Birthday in other ways others than Facebook
  12. I should protect a person's image when I post on their profile
  13. I should not read too much into a person's Facebook motivations
  14. I should be aware of the real world consequences on mine and other's posts

I'm looking forward to your comments and questions about this topic because we've only just scratched the surface. Make sure you head over to the Coping Toolkit to read the summary of suggested strategies for parents managing their teenagers Internet use.


chair 51px



Barseghian, T. (2011). Why parents should both monitor and empower kids using social media. Retrieved from www.huffingtonpost.com - HuffPost Education, March 29, 2016.

Gangadharbatla, H. (2008). Facebook me: Collective self-esteem, need to belong, and Internet self-efficacy as predictors of the iGeneration's attitudes toward social networking sites. Journal of Interactive Advertising, 8(2).

Livingstone, S., & Helsper, E. J. (2008). Parental mediation and children's Internet use. Journal of broadcasting & electronic media, 52(4), pp. 581-599.

Schurgin O'Keefe, G., & Clarke-Peterson, K. (2011). Clinical Report - The impact of mocial Media on children, adolescents, and families. American Academy of Pediatrics, 127(4), pp. 800-804.

Raisingchildren.net.au - The Australian Parenting Website - Social Networking

Robins, R. W., & Trzesniewski, K. A. (2005). Self-esteem development across the lifespan. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(3), pp. 158-162.

Taylor, J. (2012). Media's externalisation of kids' self-identity. Psychology Today. Retrieved from www.psychologytoday.com

Valkenburg, P. M., Peter, J., & Schouten, A. P. (2006). Friend networking sites and their relationship to adolescents' well-being and social self-esteem. CyberPsychology & Behaviour, 9(5), pp. 584-590.


  • Comment Link Sharyn %PM, %30 %309 %2017 %16:%Apr posted by Sharyn

    I constantly spent my half an hour to read this weblog's posts every day along with a cup of coffee.

  • Comment Link Jodie @ The Psychology of it %PM, %29 %268 %2016 %15:%May posted by Jodie @ The Psychology of it

    Further to our article on Teenagers and the Internet, our local police have identified several new APPs that are potentially making your children vulnerable to predators. These are commonly used amongst primary school aged children as well as adolescents and many of them have NO PRIVACY settings available. Note that they can be accessed via iPods and networked X-Boxes as well as phones and tablets.

    They include:
    X-Box Chat
    Tinder (for 12-17 year olds!)

    Please share any others that you may be aware of.

Leave a comment