How did you start your morning? If you’re like up to 70% of adults and teens living in the U.S., you likely spent the first part of your day scrolling through Instagram, Facebook or TikTok before your first sip of coffee.
Rory Cox is different. The 14-year-old ninth grader at T.C. Roberson High School is part of a small group of teens who are choosing their mental health, jobs and hobbies over participating on social media.
“People will ask, ‘Can I have your Snap’ or something like that — basically a contact for any social media,” she says. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t have social media,” says Cox. “Sometimes, they go blank and just stare. And I’m like, ‘Yep. I don’t.’”
While she owns an iPhone and has been exposed to social media since a preteen, Cox says that watching how social media distract and lure in her fellow classmates has caused her to avoid the platforms altogether.
“I see all the kids at school on social media, and they’re doing TikTok dances in the hallways and getting their phones taken away,” Cox says. “Wow, it’s that addictive.
“It becomes that important to you,” she continues. “And I just don’t want to end up like that.”
Behind the screen
The percentage of teens who use TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and other social media platforms has steadily grown over the years, and that growth in use has been exacerbated by the pandemic, according to a study by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that advocates for child-friendly policies and laws regarding media. The 2021 report from the organization found that 84% of teens use social media and that overall daily screen use by teenagers increased from 7 hours and 22 minutes per day to more than eight hours from 2020-21.
“Most of us know that what’s most important for teenagers developmentally is a sense of belonging with their peers,” says Shannon Todd, an Asheville-based marriage and family therapist since 2005. “I think while social media is powerful for all of us at any age, teens are at an age where they really want to be able to connect.”
Todd maintains that while social media may appeal to teens as a means to connect with friends and develop a sense of community, the list of potentially negative side effects is long. Some of those include a lack of physical activity, overstimulation and multitasking, cyberbullying and poor sleep patterns. Social media also may reinforce the need for instant gratification and cause teens to be susceptible to impulsive behaviors online.
New studies also show that social media can increase anxiety and depression, particularly among teenage girls.
“[Teens] are constantly bombarded by images of what other people are doing, or what other people look like, not only from peers but also in the media,” Todd explains. “There’s also a lot of pressure to share pictures or videos of themselves in sometimes seductive poses because they’re seeing that other people are getting some likes or attention.”
Off the grid
While Todd estimates that a majority of teens have access to social media, she is seeing a growing number who are choosing to take a break or stop using the platforms altogether. “Normally, it’s after something has happened, whether it be cyberbullying or they have noticed increased depression or anxiety,” she adds.
For Cox, avoiding social media is a way of protecting herself against potentially dangerous or unsavory aspects of the platforms. She says that the content that is available to kids and teens through the popular instant messaging platform Discord, for example, allows inappropriate content, like swearing and graphic language and images.
“The entire premise is [that] you talk to strangers on the internet,” says Cox. “I’m like, really? That’s what kids are doing? There are safeguards against this, but not infallible. Anyone can put anything on there, and I just don’t want to see something that I can’t unsee.”
Aaron Sage Price, an eighth grader at Evergreen Community Charter School, agrees, saying that he also has concerns about the type of content that’s available to kids and teens on social media. Price says he has had a smartphone since he was about 12 but has been conscious about its use.
“I’ve definitely been intentional about not having a lot of games on it. I use calling and texting and Gmail and Google a lot,” he says.
Price, who enjoys practicing taekwondo, listening to music and playing video games in his free time, adds that he simply doesn’t buy into social media trends and influencers that capture many of his classmates’ attention.
“I do not really pay attention to TikTok songs or Instagram and social media celebrities,” says Price. “I do not feel like I’m missing very much at all.”
Striking a balance
For all of the potential negative outcomes of social media use, Todd says, there are also benefits to the networks, including creating a sense of belonging and connection with their peers and allowing teens to express themselves.
“When you talk with young people about technology, it’s important for adults to mention that there’s good things, too, because otherwise a lot of teenagers are guarded, and that’s because it’s a threat to take that away,” Todd says.
Todd says that parents can strike a healthy balance of social media use by establishing can include tech-free zones within the home and parents role-modeling how they use their phones and social media. She also emphasizes the importance of getting kids involved in in-person activities such as sports or clubs to build personal relationships and provide a sense of belonging.
Both Cox and Price say that not participating on social media accounts allows them to engage in hobbies and strengthen in-person relationships. But the teens acknowledge that not having a social media account has its downsides, too.
“It does limit social life to a degree,” Cox says. She recalls a recent Dungeons and Dragons game that she wanted to join but chose to sit out because the event was taking place over Discord.
Sixteen-year-old Joseph Lamb, a sophomore at IC Imagine charter school, says he has dabbled in social media and has worked to find that balance. When he was 13, Lamb says he tried using Instagram and was initially excited to connect with friends. But he quickly found himself not liking how much time he found himself using the app.
“I think I just didn’t really like spending all the attention. If I posted something, it was all about likes. It’s all about how many likes to go, and I just never really got to understand that and I still don’t really,” Lamb says. “And I feel like it’s stupid when people post stuff about their lives, like their daily lives because for me, I just don’t care.”
He says he currently uses the news forum site Reddit to connect with people who share his interests, as well as Snapchat to communicate directly with friends but he also plays guitar and bass and works a job in his free time.
“I use [social platforms] for more hobby stuff,” Lamb says. “I like to learn, but I feel like I have no interest in posting stuff out to the world.”
Both Lamb and Price say that they haven’t experienced negative reactions from their peers for not participating on the social networks, although some are surprised.
“It’s about 50/50,” says Lamb. “But most people don’t make it a big deal.”
As she thinks about the future, Cox says she might consider joining social media once she’s older for networking opportunities or to access information.
“It seems fairly important in adult life, especially with news mediums and stuff like that,” she says. “I don’t think [social media] is inherently bad or wrong. I guess it all depends on how you use it.”
For his part, Price says that if teens are considering quitting social media, the leap isn’t as bad as it may seem. “When you delete the app, you’re not going to care as much as you think you will,” he maintains.
Lamb sounds a similar note, adding that putting the phone down could lead to more satisfying, real-life experiences.
“I am very adventurous. I want to see the world. I don’t really want to see a picture of Mount Everest on my phone,” Lamb adds. “I want to see it with my eyes, not through a screen while sitting on my couch.”