Parenting and Social Media

Evidence-Based Advice for a Growing Issue

For so many of us, social media has become so integrated into our lives to the point that we cannot go one day without checking it. We can’t imagine life without constant notifications coming from our digital devices throughout the day. We crave to hear what our favorite celebrities might eat for breakfast, or the exotic places they visit. We like to keep up with the lives and happenings of friends and acquaintances or keep up-to-date on breaking news and stories from around the world.


Social media platforms, especially in teens, tap into and expose truths about the human brain and experience. According to one of the first studies of its kind in 2016, a team of researchers at UCLA monitored the brain activity of 32 teens using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The Experiment

For the experiment, each teen was shown 148 photos for a set number of minutes. Each teen was allowed to submit some of their own Instagram photos into the photo set. The photos displayed the number of likes each photo received which was assigned by the researchers rather then peers within the study, unbeknownst to the teenage participants.

The Findings

The study’s findings revealed that a participant’s neurological response correlated with a significantly higher likelihood that the teenager will like a photo if they perceive that other peers liked the photo as well. This proved true even if that photo portrayed risky behaviors. Furthermore, when a teen saw a picture they themselves submitted with likes attached, several regions of their brains saw increased activity – specifically, a part of the brain widely known as the “reward center” or social brain.

What They Learned

In one way, the research simply displays what was already known for years: peer pressure is real, and teens are easily persuaded by it. However, when considering other factors specifically related to social media interaction, peer pressure presents a different set of challenges than the pre-internet days for teenagers and their parents.

Social networking and the “Like” button present a powerful, concentrated, and concrete marker for teen influence. One of the above study’s researchers, Mirella Dapretto, professor of psychiatry and bio behavioral sciences at UCLA’s Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior, was noted to have said that the peers in the study were complete strangers, and the influence they had on each other, both neurologically and socially, indicated that peers they actually know could have an even stronger influence on their willingness to conform.

This certainly raises concerns for parents about peers in their teen’s immediate context. It’s always been suggested that parents ought to try and get to know their child’s friends at some level. However, this study also reveals that teens in general have a higher likelihood to misjudge how well they actually know and are known by people while online. This may be the most important factor of this study for parents to consider.

What to Consider as a Parent of Teens in Today’s World

Engage in conversation. Seek to be curious and understand the internal world of your teen. Ask questions and resist assuming you already know the answers. Also resist prematurely jumping in with your opinion. Listen, and when you think it’s time to give your opinion, ask another question. It would be normal if your teen gives off a vibe that you are asking stupid questions or that they aren’t interested in talking. This might mean they are feeling awkward, they don’t trust you will give them an opportunity to share their thoughts, or they haven’t actually thought about the questions you are raising. Be patient. Your teen needs you to be strong in your patience. They need to know they have a voice that matters to you. If you feel it didn’t go well, don’t be discouraged for too long.

Talk to your teen regularly about their attitude

and understanding of their online presence.

Try again. After you do your fair share of listening, decide if your teen has said anything that you can agree with. State it to them. Then, consider what you may not agree with but can still validate. Something like, “That makes sense to me” or “That was a good point. I’ve never thought of that angle before on the issue.” Then, consider asking if you can share some of your thoughts and perspectives. If they don’t give you permission, don’t share them in that conversation. Try again later. However, I would not recommend  asking for your teen’s permission to share if you plan to share your thoughts anyway. If you share despite asking and not receiving permission, you risk becoming untrustworthy to your teen, which will only make gaining understanding of their internal world more difficult.

Don’t be afraid to monitor your teens online activity, who they are
“friends” with, and who they are following on social media.

The way I have encountered this most often is only after something has already happened, and a parent finds out about it. Then, in an effort to prevent their teen from doing it again, they believe they are forced to consider this suggestion – a retroactive rather than proactive response.

Trusting your teen is what every parent wants to be able to do, but the only way trust can be established is if your teen is acting in a way that is trustworthy. To trust when there is no evidence for trust is asking for heartache. Or, to simply trust your teen just because you want to be able to trust them puts your teen in a vulnerable position. And to be honest, your teen may have given you every indication to be able to trust them in many areas of life, so perhaps you look at this suggestion as not trusting the power of the digital age and the endless supply of influence and potential dangers for your developing teen.

Pay attention to how you are modeling online behavior.

It is vital that you pay attention to your own attitude and activity of your online behaviors. Make no mistake, your teen is paying attention. So, if you try to sit down and talk with them to give them feedback about their online behavior, then yours is fair game from them as well. The burden is on you to lead as the parent. So, perhaps you may need to make adjustments to how often you check your digital device in order to model online behaviors that promotes online responsibility and non-digital interpersonal connection.

Are you a parent struggling with social media or other issues? Watershed Counseling can help. Contact us today to make an appointment.