Ask any parent of a teen or tween what they’ve heard lately about adolescents and social media, and they’ll likely describe a horror story — one in which hapless, helpless, clueless young victims disappear down algorithmic rabbit holes and are never the same again.
It’s an eerie plotline with a limited evidence base. I know this because I’ve been covering teens and screens since the dawn of the iPhone. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that teen depression, anxiety, and suicidality have steadily risen for the past decade, especially among girls. Ninety-five percent of teens have access to a smartphone, and nearly half self-report using it “almost constantly.” Experts are split on whether B is causing A; the data are inconclusive, but even the possibility of a link is discomfiting for most parents. In 2022 the U.S. Surgeon General came out with an advisory on social media and youth mental health that called for caution pending more research.
The calming denouement that this scary narrative needs may seem obvious: Parents, schools, even states, and the federal government must band together in the pixelated ashes and do something. Ban TikTok. Lock up the phones. Read all the DMs and report all the photos. Issue policy statements.
But I wanted to know if teenagers feel the same way — if their experiences of social media have been predominantly harrowing, or if the data, headlines, and advisories tell just one small piece of their online story. So I decided to ask them.
Over the summer, I worked with youth organizations nationwide to distribute a Google form to teen participants enrolled in their programming. The form asked them to share the drawbacks and benefits of their experiences with social media. From 65 responses, I selected a representative cross-section of the group for face-to-face interviews. Overall, the teenagers I polled seem to be figuring out how to navigate the pitfalls of social media unsupervised — and after difficult skirmishes, many are climbing out of that algorithmic rabbit hole, newly armed with self-awareness, confidence, and coping mechanisms.
Their lives are less dystopian nightmare, more bittersweet Bildungsroman. Social media, as they see it, is something like a billboard-plastered, litter-strewn skateboard plaza in an unsavory part of town. It’s junky, spammy, competitive, and risky, but it’s also a place where brave feats of creativity and connection nonetheless happen all the time.
The Violinist Turned Bible-Study Streamer
“I have found myself being on my phone completely absorbed in other people’s lives.” — Madison M., 18, Aledo, Texas
➼ On social media since age 14
➼ Platforms: Instagram, Snapchat
When I was about to begin my freshman year of high school, I got Instagram — and someone threatened to kill me over DM because I wouldn’t date them. I blocked them. I didn’t ask for the school to get involved. It’s an awkward thing to discuss with adults. I felt like it would be a domino effect. It would get worse or the school wouldn’t do anything. Eventually, I switched schools for a bunch of different reasons.
Adults can invalidate the feelings of kids. Schools say that they have zero tolerance for bullying and harassment, but do they really? My school had that policy, and that literally never stopped it.
At my old school, I would be on my phone 12 hours a day, including in class. A lot of girls I’ve been close to have felt the demands of society pushed on them. It’s caused eating disorders by promoting staying skinny at all costs. You see mean people commenting on posts: “She’s not that pretty,” “She looks weird.”
These days, I watch the app that tells me how much I’m using. I balance it by reading books, going outside, and focusing on hanging out with friends in person. I’m down to four or five hours a day, and a lot of that is looking at sheet music. I’m classically trained on the violin and viola.
I’m also leading a 365-day Bible study over Instagram and Snapchat. I create notes and upload videos every day. We have about 100 members right now, and we are about 13 percent finished. We’re at Leviticus 18:21. I want to do it again next year. I’m thinking about building an app.
I was a swim coach over the summer. As soon as practice was over, some of the little kids would go check their phones, texts, and social media. Mind you, these are 5 to 10-year-olds. I was like, “Guys, go get snowcones, go hang out with your friends. What’s the need? I promise it’s not that cool, you’re not missing out on anything.”
The Skeptic Who Got Hooked in the Pandemic
“You’re talking to a wall of little profiles.” — Akiko K., 17, Dubuque, Iowa
➼ On social media since age 13
➼ Platforms: Instagram, LinkedIn
I spent most of my childhood opposed to the idea of having an online presence after observing my older friends and family members engulfed in technology.
But during 2020, when my interactions with peers and the outside world were so limited, social media offered a powerful and positive opportunity to stay connected with friends and family. Keeping in touch with people was much easier when you could send someone a quick Snap or post just to let them know you were thinking of them.
But at the same time, you’re kind of screaming into a void, which I just don’t think could ever be good for your personal mentality. When you’re talking to someone face to face, or messaging them, their attention is mostly on you. On social media, you’re releasing information to the world, but you’re not talking to people.
When I first came out as queer, at 13 or 14, social media was really important for me to connect and get my questions answered. So now I’m a youth ambassador for It Gets Better and a youth social-media specialist for Q Chat, an online community for LGBTQ+ teens.
I was impacted less by Instagram or Facebook and more by LinkedIn, which I joined at 15. I loved connecting with my peers, but it could also be a struggle to take a step back rather than compare myself. I’m not a visual person, so Instagram isn’t really where I feel that sense of comparison. It’s like, okay, this other person has this nice dress or vacation. That’s great. But, what’s actually impactful to my future? On LinkedIn, I found lots of people I know getting something I wanted, like the Coca-Cola scholarship, which I applied to but didn’t get.
I would tell a 12 or 13-year-old that social media, like many other things, is a resource, and it’ll be exactly what they make of it. In another world, I might advise them to stay off social media for the sake of their time and mental health. But realistically, in today’s deeply tech-reliant society, that would be impractical advice. Instead, I think I’d simply say, “Be safe, and don’t be afraid to take a break.”
The Singer Who Befriended His Online Bully
“We can use social media to get out of the shadows.” — Andrew L., 16, Calvert, Maryland
➼ On social media since age 15
➼ Platform: Instagram
I faced bullying starting at the beginning of elementary school. For years, a rumor circulated that I was gay because I have a high voice, I sing, and I used to act.
Two years ago, in my freshman year of high school, there was a TikTok made about me. It was a sound clip of Kim Kardashian saying, “It’s just never been my thing, not into it, so not approved by me” with a picture of me and the words “any time Andrew L. talks” and the hashtag #STFU. And there were like 40 comments: “So funny,” “he’s finally getting what he deserves.”
The kid who made it didn’t think that I would see it because I didn’t have TikTok. Other friends were reporting it as harassment, so it shut his entire page down for a couple of days. Finally, after a few days, someone told me about it in the middle of fourth-period biology while the kid who did it was sitting right behind me.
When I saw the video, I went to a dark place. My mom found my notes crumpled up in the trash can. Then I got help. I started therapy.
I wrote an essay about the post and decided to put it on Instagram. I shared what it felt like to be bullied for so many years: “a war against myself as well as with the world around me.” Due to the rumor about me being gay, I had lost my guy friends. Women were the only source of friendship that I had, but I was unable to attract women as girlfriends, and I struggled with my self-image.
I shared the essay hoping it would help someone else. And the kid who had made the Kim Kardashian post saw it and texted me a really long message. His life and his story emulated mine. He dances. He sings. He’s been labeled gay for years. He didn’t have a ton of guy friends. He felt that he wasn’t getting attention, and he was feeling so worthless that he had to try and tear someone else down. He thanked me for sharing my experience and for being the voice for other people. I was so unbelievably touched. Now, we’re friends.
Everything that I do now is because of that essay. I work as a mental-health advocate in student government, and I’m the president of a student group organizing for mental-health reform across my state and a few other states. I post a lot on Instagram. I don’t feel the need to restrict myself. I will talk about my story, my mental health, and what I have gone through. It resulted in so many people texting me, DMing me.
The Climate Activist Who Traded Instagram for
“I cried a lot and had mental breakdowns about it.” — Iris Z., 19, Washington, D.C.
➼ On social media since age 13
➼ Platforms: Musical.ly, Instagram, LinkedIn
I started on Musical.ly in middle school, and it was fun. In high school, when I started my Insta, I would repost my Musical.lys — me strumming an acoustic guitar, playing a folk song about sea-level rise. So cringe looking back on them now!
People’s lives dramatically change from middle school to high school. All these unsaid social norms start to develop about what kind of friends you should have, how you should post about them on Instagram, and how often you should be going out. People would put up all these posed selfies, and show off their fun life — you know, house parties with the red Solo cups. My parents were really strict about an early bedtime. Plus I was very introverted. I felt very alone.
I followed people on Instagram who I went to school with and who I wouldn’t necessarily talk to one-on-one. I wanted people in my high school to follow me so badly. When I would follow people, they wouldn’t follow me back, or sometimes they would and then unfollow me right away.
Instagram creates pressure and a toxic comparison culture. I’ve taken so many breaks from social media because of the FOMO. My parents could see the damage it was doing to me, but Instagram also helped develop my activism. Once I got online, I started to follow a bunch of different climate pages. Then I started posting infographics and very preachy rants because I had all this passion. Social media was an accessible way for people to know what I care about and who I am, and people started to notice that. My teachers, people at school, and people from all over responded to my posts and DM’d me. I posted about March for Our Lives; I organized a walkout at my school and then a march in D.C.
Wanting validation still comes up in the activist space. I was invested in my engagement ratio. Activist accounts don’t have as much engagement as other mainstream accounts because of the algorithm. I spent so much time posting. I was so meticulous. It became a core part of my identity. I felt like I wasn’t enough, and that made me too invested. I would get activist FOMO — when you see other activists posting about conferences and events, and you’re like, I wish I was there! I felt like if I didn’t go to an event it was the end of the world.
I had to take a break from Instagram. LinkedIn has become my new Instagram and my best friend because people are actually serious and professional there.
The Salvadoran Who Stays Connected to His Home Country
“Social media gave me a new lens to look at the world through.” — Selvin P., 17, Naples, FL
➼ On social media since age 12
➼ Platforms: YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram
My first experience with social media was stumbling upon YouTube videos of people sharing how they live in certain countries — Peru, India, Mexico, China. One of the most exciting things was the opportunity to learn about new languages, cuisines, customs, and even music genres that I would have never been exposed to otherwise.
When I had to escape El Salvador in 2017 due to gang violence, social media became a great way for me to stay connected with my own culture. I was able to learn about things that I never knew about even when I was living there.
My parents taught me: Don’t talk to strangers or click random links. School in the U.S. had training on that, but it’s not really advanced. At the end of the year, when there’s nothing else to teach, that’s when they would teach social media.
The worst thing about social media is how it can mess with your head and make you feel like you’re not good enough. You see these pictures of people — the Kardashians, Logan Paul, the Hype House people — with perfect bodies, perfect homes, and perfect relationships, and you start to wonder why you can’t have those things too. Social media can make it feel like everyone else has it all figured out, while you’re still struggling to find your place. It’s like this constant pressure to be perfect, or at least look perfect, and it can be really exhausting. It was really damaging to my self-esteem.
But the truth is, no one’s life is perfect. We all have our struggles and our flaws, even if we don’t show them on social media. Now, I keep my account very private and mostly just follow and post updates from student organizations. Fundraisers for the yearbook, or the Green Club, where we do beach cleanups — things like that. If I see people that seem like they’re not being real, or they make me feel bad about myself, I unfollow them or mute them.
The Instagrammer Who Learned How to Block Harassers in Fourth Grade
“When a child has a fully grown mind, you can take away the parental controls.” — Jay’shun M., 16, Warner Robins, Georgia
➼ On social media since age 9
➼ Platform: Instagram
I started out posting pictures of friends and family. Pretty soon I was coming across false news, disgusting images, and interacting with older people with malicious intent.
Let’s just say there are some people on social media that upload things that aren’t child-friendly.
I got some negative comments, some racism. They would DM me. I’d be Iike, “Hello!” And they would just send, like, spam, or some type of hacking method to try to get your password.
Within a few months, I Googled “How can I stop seeing negative things.” I went into the settings. You can block sensitive content, like the n-word. I use the “block” feature wisely now, and I don’t follow anyone past “friends of friends” or let them follow me.
Now I treat Instagram like it’s a professional portfolio. I post accomplishments and interact with friends and professional contacts. My interests are directing, writing, acting, politics, and business.
Social media is a necessity. It’s a part of our generation. I do think some parental control could be added. In our generation, people love technology. You take it away from us? It’s like, Oh, wow, we have nothing left.
The AP Scholar Learning Time Management
“T.S. Eliot put it quite accurately when he opined that modern humanity is ‘Distracted from distraction by distraction’!” — Jason S., 16, Cupertino, California
➼ On social media since age 13
➼ Platforms: Instagram, Discord
My generation has this fascination with being fake and not being fake. A lot of people have two accounts: main and spam. Your “spam” account is like the one you give out to whoever and you don’t share any information about yourself. And your main is the real you. Getting a “main” is a rite of passage; it connects you to everyone in the grade.
I got Instagram right as we were getting out of COVID into a more on-campus experience. I go to an elite, private high school, and I used it to promote my bid for my class’ student-council representative board. With Instagram, I found a lot of joy in the validation I received from people I barely knew from school — the likes, the comments. I also found myself able to easily approach and strike up conversations with people by commenting on their Stories, which eased a lot of the social anxiety of interaction.
I noticed that I was losing a lot of sleep around the beginning of my sophomore year. I didn’t know how to manage my time well. I honestly spent way too much time on Instagram. Ever since my friends began sending me Instagram reels, I found myself “regaining consciousness an hour later” (to quote a meme).
Now I’m taking AP Latin, AP Euro, AP chem, advanced acting, competitive speech/debate, honors precalc. I also self-study AP British literature. The academic load is pretty insane. It’s why I don’t have TikTok or Snapchat — I don’t think I could be productive or have time to pursue passion projects.
It’s very hard to get rid of social media. It does serve as a positive force, but you have to really know your priorities. It’s hard at a young age.
The Nigerian Student Who Scrolled Her Way to a Scholarship
“So many people were doing beautiful, amazing things — things I didn’t know were possible for high school students. ” — Tomisin A., 18, Baltimore, Maryland
➼ On social media since age 11
➼ Platforms: Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, LinkedIn
I grew up in Nigeria. When I was 11 years old, I opened an Instagram account in my mom’s name just to look at accounts of Nickelodeon actors. I loved Miranda Cosgrove, Eric Danger, Sam & Cat.
I graduated high school at 15. Around that time, I got on LinkedIn. Initially, I found myself constantly comparing my achievements to those of my friends. It was both humbling and depressing, as it made me feel like I was not accomplishing enough.
Following months of trying and failing to live up to my own expectations, I decided that it was time to change my approach. I started a blog aimed at motivating people who, like me, are struggling with low self-esteem. I found this experience to be both constructive and rewarding.
One day while I was still in high school, I saw an ad on Instagram for the University of Miami. I started reaching out to counselors and admissions officers online and joining info sessions. I started learning how to use the Common App on LinkedIn. When I got interested in a school, I would look up the school on Instagram. And I came across a lot of opportunities, especially scholarships. And that’s why I’m in the U.S. for college.
Now that I’m in college, I have TikTok and Insta and group chats with friends and family back home. I still see opportunities online, like fellowships and internships — that is the main reason I have not stopped entirely. I’m trying so hard not to get distracted. I set a timer, and then I leave. I say, “Okay, I have to study now.”