Social Media: What Teens Think and What Parents Don’t Know

Good morning. It’s Thursday. The surgeon general says social media carries a “profound risk” for young people. We’ll see how teenagers in New York responded to his warning.

The GGD’s surgeon general issued a public advisory this week warning that social media could harm young people. Adolescents “are not just smaller adults,” said Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy. “They’re at a different stage of development, and they’re at a critical stage of brain development.”

He sounded the alarm in a 19-page report that recommended that families keep meals and in-person gatherings free of devices. He also said tech companies should enforce minimum age limits “in a way that respects the privacy of youthful users” and ensure that default settings for children are “set to the highest standards of safety and privacy.”

I spoke with our education reporter, Troy Closson, who along with several colleagues sampled the response to the report among children and teens in New York.

The Surgeon General’s report said social media can harm the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents, but the effects of social media on adolescent mental health are not fully understood. The research is inconclusive and somewhat contradictory.

That’s one of the challenges.

Teenagers will tell you themselves that there are downsides to social media. They talk about having bad experiences of cyberbullying or dealing with online discrimination or receiving a huge pile of classmates.

But the Surgeon General himself acknowledged that there are benefits. The Upshot ran a story about how social media can be crucial for many LGBTQ teens.

You spoke to children and teenagers and told them that the Surgeon General had warned that social media posed a “serious risk of harm”. What did they say?

The reaction to the news was often “we already knew that.” For many people, the value in Dr. Murthy not new information, but that it brought together what was already there.

Some teens said adults often don’t fully understand the benefits of social media. They talked about how Instagram opened their eyes to new career paths, or how TikTok taught them about new cultures.

They also said that while they’re already aware of some of the downsides, it’s important to be more upfront about them so they can better navigate them.

I think that’s where we are, trying to build a roadmap for the realities of the world today. Kids start using social media. How can we make sure their experiences run as smoothly as possible?

What do teens think the downsides are?

Many teens said one problem is how much time they spend online at all.

Our colleague Wesley Parnell also spoke to several high school students who said people were trying to hack into their accounts, they had been impersonated, and their reputations had been tarnished by rumours.

For other students, being in an online world outside of social media can be difficult. Some have struggled with the fact that they often see images online of what an “ideal” body and figure look like. They look at themselves and compare themselves. Spending time on the internet therefore affects their own self-image.

But that’s not new.

It’s not. It’s one of those things that teenagers have been dealing with for a long time and is now only getting more attention in politics.

One of the teens we spoke to is a sophomore in high school. She said she started an art account on Instagram when she was 11, in high school. She wanted to turn it into a business and “make a name for herself.” But she was so focused on the opinions, likes, comments, and shares that she really started to lose her self-esteem as an artist, even at that young age. She’s been thinking about how she wants to use social media and what her own personal guidelines will be so she doesn’t fall back into that.

Didn’t the Surgeon General’s report highlight something that was true long before social media took off—many if not most parents live in different worlds than many if not most teens?

Many teens we spoke to said that: Their parents have no idea how often they use social media or what they do online.

Some believed that, rather than pass laws or get tech companies involved, the best way forward is for families to be more aware of what’s happening — and for kids to be more willing to share what they’re doing. At the same time, some parents themselves seek help navigating it all.

A student our colleague Olivia Bensimon spoke to spoke of a very painful experience of cyberbullying. She described it as if she had a real nervous breakdown. She confided in friends, but she didn’t tell her parents. Some teens said they faced such overwhelming situations and wondered, “Should I tell my parents next time?”

Another student told us that the current national conversation is missing the bigger issue. Some young people take to social media and spend a lot of time online as an escape, finding communities and stability that they might struggle with in the real world. Teenagers told us they hope adults focus on the reasons why.

Some places have passed laws requiring parental consent for young people to go on social media. But that’s pointless, right? Social media is just something you have to have.

That was one of the first things we heard from the teens we spoke to. At the end of the day, requiring parental consent is just another barrier for kids to get around, and they’ll get around it.

Social media is clearly central to how many young people not only communicate, but how they process the world – I’m in Gen Z myself and it’s an important part of my life. And for many of the teens we interviewed, they agree that there are potential downsides, but when it comes to what the solution is, the answer is less clear for them.

Dr. Murthy called on tech companies to enforce minimum ages. But some kids told you there is no incentive for social media companies to limit who can sign up and log in.

We are currently in a youth mental health crisis that got worse during the pandemic, but it had started before. Questions have been raised about the role that social media and technology companies could play in that crisis. But even as pressure mounts on tech companies to make changes, experts say caveats in existing laws limit the actual effect they will have on young people.


Enjoy a sunny day with an altitude of almost 69 and little wind. At night, expect mostly clear skies and a low around 53 with light winds.


Effective today. Suspended tomorrow (Shavuot).


Dear Diary:

It was early evening on an unusually mild Friday night in February. I walked quickly down Fifth Street toward Second Avenue, wondering if we were getting the first taste of spring as we tried not to trip over broken sections of the sidewalk.

I saw a man walking towards me. He held a phone to his ear. As he got closer, he held the phone away from his face.

“Mark!” he screamed.

He put his phone back to his ear and paused.

“Mark!” he called again.

This time I heard a voice respond from behind me on the other side of the street.

“Polo!” said the voice.

The man grinned as we passed each other

—Rachel Misner

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here And read more Metropolitan Diary here.

Social Media: What Teens Think and What Parents Don’t Know

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