Home / explainers / Social media and its influence on teens
Social media
Photo: Jason Howie/Flickr

Social media and its influence on teens

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been churning out articles on psychology studies pertaining to social media. This post is essentially aimed at aggregating all the studies and the results and to find out the bigger picture — understanding the different forces at play, the driving factors and positive and negative consequences of social media, especially among teens.

Defining social media

All of us are a part of different social media networks but not many can define one. Broadly, it can be defined as websites and applications used for social networking. And, social networks, according to Oxford Dictionaries, is “a dedicated website or other application which enables users to communicate with each other by posting information, comments, messages, images, etc.” 

Among the many definitions, this one holds a lot of significance. It says, “Social Media is a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User-Generated Content.”

User-generated content is the most important concept. And, this post is understanding the different aspects of the user-generated content — the drives, urges, consequences of it.

Why we use social media

Facebook. Photo: Flickr/downloadsource.fr
Photo: Flickr/downloadsource.fr

For many, a social network is an extension of the ‘real world’. How we decide to pose in our photos, what photos get the nod to get published, the posts we share and like, the arguments we enter into, are all process of us reinforcing an image of ourselves. It offers a platform to help us project ourselves in a manner that we would like others to see us.

The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) says “during the last five years, the number of preadolescents and adolescents using such sites [social media websites] has increased dramatically. According to a recent poll, 22% of teenagers log on to their favorite social media site more than 10 times a day, and more than half of adolescents log on to a social media site more than once a day. Seventy-five percent of teenagers now own cell phones, and 25% use them for social media, 54% use them for texting, and 24% use them for instant messaging. Thus, a large part of this generation’s social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet and on cell phones.”

Here are some studies that we believe might hold the answers to this question.

Facebook and self-esteem

This article argues that social media usage is linked to self-esteem. Before, we get to study, let’s understand what self-esteem means.

Self-esteem is a subjective measure of we see ourselves. We develop an image of ourselves based our experiences with different people and activities. It reflects in our thought process, our confidence and motivation levels.

This study says we are more prone to project our ideal version of ourselves than our real versions in a bid to improve our self-esteem. We project an identity that we’d like to others to see, which in turn would reflect in the way we think about ourselves. The study notes, “recent research in computer-mediated communication (CMC) suggests that online self-presentations can become integrated into how we view ourselves, especially when the presentations take place in a public, digital space. This phenomenon, known as identity shift, demonstrates that self-presentations enacted in online space can impact users’ self-concepts.”

Ambient intimacy and Twitter

Leisa Reichelt introduced the term ‘ambient intimacy’ in one her blog posts, saying it “is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.”

It can also be defined as a feeling of closeness one develops over a period of time by following other users’ updates on social media.

The study notes that, “by regularly reading a person’s status updates, individuals are able to get acquainted with the daily routine of one another and might even build [imaginary] close relationships with someone they have never met in person.”

Social media usage linked to cortisol levels

Adolescents with over 300 friends on Facebook have higher levels of cortisol circulating in their bodies, a study has found. On the other hand, it also said socialising on Facebook — involving liking, sharing of content produced by ‘friends’ — reduces the cortisol levels.

Cortisol, popularly known as ‘stress hormone’, is produced in the adrenal cortex in response to stress. The levels of cortisol in the body fluctuates through the day, depending on a range of factors, including stress levels, food intake etc. The cortisol levels are high at the start of a day and slowly decrease as the day progresses.  And, the fluctuations also have a bearing on other functions of the body.

This study found that bigger the friend network, higher the levels of stress hormone in the body. It might also explain the addiction to social media, which is our next topic.

Dependency on social media

For young adults, friends’ approval is more important that of the parents’. Two key psychological components that help in creating dependency on social media is reinforcement.

Woman taking a selfie
Woman taking a selfie. Photo: Flickr/Paško Tomić

What are reinforcements?

Reinforcements can either be positive or negative. A reinforcement is said to be a positive one if the feedback strengthens your beliefs,  which is to say, the chances of you doing the same thing increases. Users send tweets seeking some kind of reinforcement for their beliefs. When a positive reinforcement arrives, it strengthens their value system. One of the main reasons for the kind of volume of tweets and pictures being shared is this: the need to create instances for achieving such reinforcements.

The number of tweets or status updates or pictures you upload, therefore, play an important role in deciding the probability of you receiving a positive reinforcement.

Instant gratification and social media

Another important concept that explains the addiction is instant gratification.

Behavioral psychologists are of the opinion that reinforcements that occur immediately after the behaviour are the most powerful ones. And social media provides that.

So why do we retweet or like or share a post? It’s because of these three factors or a combination of them: the need to belong, create or establish an identity, and provide reinforcements to what we believe in.

We have gone through the urges that drive our behavior on the virtual medium, studies that shed light on the reasons for our social media. Now, to the consequences or the complications that have arisen due to excessive virtual social networking.

The unfavorable effects social media

Privacy issues

This study points that people who expect bigger benefits out of social networking sites tend to share more information than those who do not. And, people who are not a part of the network will tend the weigh the risks more than the potential benefits.

What are bigger benefits? They are the positive reinforcements we had discussed earlier.

It also found that more adolescents associated privacy with situations involving relationships, for example being able to be alone with a partner or friend. And, relatively more adults associated privacy with those situations that involve personal information.  

Depression linked to social media usage

Depression causes frequent feelings of sadness, anxious, helpless, worthless, restlessness, in general, puts the person in a mood of constant self-doubting. The popular notion that it’s a mental disorder might sound extreme but it quite common, especially among individuals who move among active social circles.

Loneliness, sadness and depression. Photo: Flickr/Guilherme Yagui
Photo: Flickr/Guilherme Yagui

Our increasing usage of social networking websites is one of the leading reasons for depression among young adolescents and children. The engagement provides an opportunity to seek reinforcements.

When a positive reinforcement arrives, in the form of a ‘like’ or a compliment or a ‘share’, it strengthens beliefs and boost the self-esteem. And when no reinforcements or negative reinforcements arrive, they lead to a situation leading to depression.

Anxiety related to social networking

Anxiety disorder is a catchall term that encompasses everything from fear, panic, nervousness and worrying. We get nervous when forced to do an activity that requires us to go well out of our comfort zone. The fear of a negative consequence is a major factor. We all go through times when we fear or feel nervous about certain situations. And those don’t count as symptoms of anxiety disorder.  

Everyone has biases and most of us employ it without realizing. Take a minute to reflect on this: why do you have a particular color as your favorite one, why do some songs grab your attention immediately while others don’t, why we prefer certain politicians. Ask yourself the whys of every activity. We have a value system (our traditions, likes, dislikes, sense of morality) and we use that to navigate through day-to-day situations.

When we take sides in our head, and in the process, create space for things we don’t like. And threat stems from things we fear or feel anxious about. So, when confront with an idea that does not go well with our value system, we, sometimes, convince ourselves by interpreting information as a threat.  There’s plenty of opinions, views and stories on social media and we are often forced to revisit our ideas on a regular basis and this can lead to buildup of anxiety.

The ugly side of social media

Social media has also given access to people inflict harm on others. Teens, unfortunately, often find themselves at the receiving end of such attacks. Here, we’ll talk about two specific and common ways people use to intimidate others on virtual platforms.

Cyber Crime
Photo: Bankenverband – Bundesverband deutscher Banken/Flickr


Bullying has always existed. But in the last decade, with increasing access to Internet and proliferation of smartphones, it has take a new form. Psychologists are calling it cyberbullying. And it has become worse in many ways. Cyberbullying can be defined as the act of “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.”

Teens are often reluctant to tell their parents about their experiences, especially if they believe that it will show them poor light. Less than 20 per cent of teens talk to parents about incidents of cyberbullying. And more than 90% of teens use the Internet.

Cyberbullying is an extension of real-world bullying. The driving factors remain the same and the difference is only the manifestations. Coloroso, in her book,The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander (2003), said there are three main elements to bullying: imbalance of power, intent to harm and threat to further aggression. The elements apply to cyberbullying as well.

What makes cyberbullying more dangerous? A study points to four important concepts that differentiate cyberbullying from real-world bullying. They are:

Persistence: Digital footprints are really hard to erase and they stay in the network even if do not show up.

Searchability: It is also easier to search for a particular person on the Internet. And even worse is the ability to filter searches and target people.

Replicability: It provides a means to copy, paste information that need not be necessarily original.

Anonymity: The online medium, in a way, gives a person a sense of anonymity that makes him/her believe that “if there’s no person in real, then there’s no consequence.”


Cyberstalking is said to have occurred when a person is harassed, bullied, defamed and has his/her privacy violated and threatened online. Cyberstalking may originate online but follows through with real life consequences.

Unintentionally, many leave a big trail of personal information and photos. In cases of cyberstalking, the stalker uses these information to create fear and bully their victims.

With the advent of social media and advancing technologies, such stalking has taken new avatars such as trolling, threats in the form of morphed videos and pictures. The Internet assures the perpetrators of such stalking a certain degree anonymity, and this coupled with a relative lack of caution on the part of users, makes it easy for stalkers to commit crimes.

The study notes, “A cyberstalker does not present a direct threat to a victim, but follows the victim’s online activity to gather information and make threats or other forms of verbal intimidation. A potential stalker may not want to confront and threaten a person offline, but may have no problem threatening or harassing a victim through the Internet or other forms of electronic communications.”

Tips for parents

Clinical Psychologist Debora Myrtle Anish’s four important tips for parents:
a. Find something in your child that you appreciate and voice it to him/her.  A little appreciation goes a long way.
b. With freedom comes responsibility.  Give them responsibilities appropriate to their level of development and skill, so that fulfilling them will improve your child’s  self esteem.
c. Get to know your child’s ever changing likes/dislikes and interests.  Don’t be over curious, but exhibit sufficient attention that they know you are really interested in them.
d.  Don’t be harsh or quick to judge them.  Remember your own teenage years.  Though not exactly the same, they are undergoing similar (maybe even more) pressures that you faced earlier.

Check Also

Sarahah app: the psychology behind it

It’s time we spoke about Sarahah app. Yes, everyone’s talking about. Love it or hate …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *