I work directly with teenagers, and I truly love hanging with the teens here at the Community Center. I find kids this age challenging but so rewarding at the same time.
Recently, I was engaged in a conversation with several seventh and eighth grade teenagers who frequent many of the programs and classes we offer here at the Community Center. We were discussing communication. I specifically asked them about their preferred method of communication when they are speaking to their friends. No adults, just other teens. I was amazed to learn 8 out of 10 teens said that they speak to each other through Snapchat. They admitted that they prefer to send ‘snaps’ rather than speak face-to-face, call, or even text.
Snapchat is a free, mobile app that allows users to send pictures and messages, but those messages and pictures are only available for a short time before they become inaccessible. I know that social media, teens, and phones, go hand-in-hand, but I honestly did not expect social media to be the primary way that kids are connecting.
I also learned many of these teens have phones, but they do not have phone service, so they operate completely through Wi-Fi. Maybe that is part of the reason why they are not calling and texting each other, and why they spend hours on Snapchat and social media.
The entire conversation with these teens evolved into something much larger and more pressing: it is the use of social media and the dangers that it presents. Most of us are active on social media, and it can be a fun and resourceful tool at times, but like everything in life, it should be done in moderation. For many of our young people social media is ‘real life’ and it is addicting. The image that many of the teens want to portray online is often times more important than what is actually happening in their day-to-day lives and their daily reality. Many of our teens are looking up to social media celebrities, while oversharing personal information, and putting themselves at-risk without knowing it.
Many parents and caretakers have heard about or have experienced online bullying or trolling. The dangers of teens on social media can extend well beyond someone trolling on their page. The use of consistent social media for teens can lead to poor sleep, increased anxiety, and lower self-esteem.
I can personally speak to the self-esteem part. I knew a teen who would post pictures on social media, and if she didn’t get immediate feedback or “likes” she automatically thought something was wrong with her, and would continue to post pictures until they were liked. Online instant gratification was the only way she felt accepted. That notion right there can potentially lead to bigger issues and hazards later in life.
As parents, caretakers, and mentors in teen’s lives, it is up to us to help teach kids and teenagers about the impacts of social media and oversharing. There are now revenge laws in Virginia to prosecute someone who releases pictures of an ex or spouse. Many of us teach our teens how to protect themselves in the event that someone offers them a ride, or if a fight were to occur, but we need to consider the importance and urgency of teaching our teens about how to protect themselves online.
We have all heard that what you post online never truly goes away. We are in the digital age where it is extremely easy to type in someone’s name and see what they posted days, months, or years ago. I would hate to see opportunities ruined because of something that was posted when they were a juvenile.
I am happy to help our teens sort out their social media needs here at the Community Center. I encourage parents and caregivers to talk with teens about social media, and how teenagers use social media. Here are a few articles posted discussing the impact of social media on teen brains, their development, and concerns.
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Tony Thomas is the Recreation Services Supervisor for the City of Manassas Park, Department of Parks and Recreation. He can be reached at 703-335-8872, or via email at T.Thomas@ManassasParkVA.gov.