Almost every teenager in the U.S. has personal access to a device with a camera, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made using that camera more useful than ever for participating in distance learning, creating fun content to share online, and staying connected with friends and family at a safe social distance. Teens who are not able to visit family or spend time with friends in person are using their video- and photo-enabled devices to connect virtually through text, email, and FaceTime.
While maintaining these relationships through the challenges of a pandemic is beneficial to teens’ mental health, the increased use of photo- and video-enabled devices presents several risks to teen safety and well-being.
The Effects of Social Media and Influencers on Self-Esteem
Regardless of their hobbies, interests, or social preferences, most teens are regular social media users—at least 70% of teens report using social media more than once a day. Notifications for social media can be constant, often putting pressure on teens to stay connected and keep up with their peers.
This pressure also applies to everyone else teens follow on social media, including celebrities and influencers who lead seemingly lavish and unattainable lives. Teens will often compare themselves to these influencers—in terms of attractiveness, financial status, popularity, and overall significance—leading to feelings of inferiority.
Unfortunately, while teens’ feelings are valid, these comparisons are often based on unrealistic perceptions formed from viewing the “highlight reel” that influencers tend to share on their social media. Great lighting, fancy equipment, and photo filters all create an illusion of perfection that can wear away at teens’ self-esteem. Teens also may have feelings of anxiety to attain the perceived standard that influencers and social media create.
Sharing Sexually Explicit Content and Nudes
During the pandemic, an alarming new trend has emerged: Teens are sharing more sexually explicit content than they were before. In the first three months of the 2020–21 school year alone, Gaggle Safety Management experienced a 135% increase in incidents flagged as nudity and sexual content. This type of content not only includes pornographic content students have found online but also nude or otherwise sexually explicit photos and videos of teens.
Teens may stumble upon pornographic content online that they find shocking or interesting and share it with their friends to get a reaction. After seeing the reaction this type of content gets, other teens may begin to feel the pressure to share explicit content themselves in order to avoid ridicule or to look “cool” to their peers.
Sometimes the pressure goes further than sharing links found online and progresses to the creation and sharing of sexual content that features teens themselves. It is the personal content teens share that is of the greatest concern as these images carry significant legal implications for teens and school districts. Furthermore, sharing sexually explicit personal images can lead to bullying and irreparable emotional damage.
Helping Teens Set Healthy Boundaries
While teens may experience many risks through social media and their personal devices, there are a few things that parents, educators, and districts can do to mitigate the associated threats to teen safety and well-being.
First and foremost, it’s critical for parents and teachers to help teens set healthy boundaries for the content they share digitally, both publicly and privately. It’s important that teens are aware of the permanence of anything they share digitally. Teens should also acknowledge the unpredictability of how their content will be used and who it will be shared with—even a private message can be saved or forwarded to anyone. Taking these considerations when sharing personal content with others can protect teens from emotional, legal, or future professional harm.
Schools and districts can implement a student safety platform, like Gaggle Safety Management, to protect teens when they’re using their school-provided accounts and devices. Gaggle protects students 24/7/365 using a machine learning algorithm and a team of human safety professionals. When harmful content is discovered on student accounts, Gaggle immediately notifies a school official of the concern. In the event of an emergency situation, Gaggle is also able to contact local law enforcement to intervene immediately and prevent students from harming themselves or others.
The many social pressures teens experience are unavoidable, but by working together, parents, educators, and districts can help teens be safe and mindful online and protect them when they make mistakes.