Young adult girl feeling depressed staring at her phone.

How Phones and Social Media Strain Teen Relationships

The average American teenager spends at least 4 hours per day on their phone, with over an hour of that time spent specifically on social media and texting. While adults might view social media and texting as less meaningful than in-person interactions, teens describe their phones, the internet, and online gaming as important tools for building and maintaining meaningful friendships, especially during COVID-19. 

Research about texting and social media use in teenagers indicates that teens overwhelmingly use social media to communicate with existing friends, not to meet new people. However, teens' online communication is quite different than in-person interactions they might have with the very same people. Specifically, online communication helps teens communicate with their friends when they need them most, and about topics that might be uncomfortable to talk about in person. Most teens describe feeling closer to their friends when they are able to share everyday thoughts and experiences via text or social media, and get immediate responses from their friends. For example, teens might text a friend about how hard a homework assignment is while trying to finish it, and getting immediate validation and even instrumental support. While these interactions were always important to teens outside of school hours, during COVID-19 restrictions, text conversations have also had to replace discussions between class, during lunch, and after school that keep friendships close.

In this video a teen describes the importance of immediate connection with his friends like this:

“Reaching out to the person right when you need them, so you don't have to wait to see them at school brings us closer.”

In-the-moment interaction can also be incredibly helpful when teens need emotional support from their peers during or after a stressful event or about a sensitive topic. Online interactions can also make these topics less intimidating to bring up, allowing teens more time to think about what they want to share, how they want to say it, and removing the pressure of having to appear or act a certain way during the conversation. This is even more true for teens that already experience generalized or social anxiety. In the video above, another teen describes how texting and online communication allow her to talk about uncomfortable topics:

“There are definitely things that maybe I wouldn't tell anyone in real life, that I feel more comfortable telling them on social media or online.”

These perspectives make a lot of sense given the developmental tasks of adolescence, which include creating more intimate peer relationships and gaining autonomy from parents. Communicating with friends online allows teens to practice complex social skills that are important for more intimate, autonomous friendships, like appropriate self-disclosure, perspective taking, and self-regulation, with a little more time to think and react to peers in ways they feel good about. For example, a teen can write out a response to a friend, delete it, and rewrite it many times, which they couldn’t do if they were in person. Unfortunately, social media and texting is a really bad match for the skills that are weakest for adolescents: impulse control and self-esteem.

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Many parents are already well aware of these downsides to social media. Teens' heightened impulsivity makes them more likely to send impulsive messages in response to strong emotions or respond to peer pressure to engage in risk behaviors online. Teens are also more likely to believe information they see online is real and thus feel pressured to live up to unrealistic expectations surrounding body image or behavior modeled on Instagram.

You may have already had conversations with your teen about comparing themselves to peers and influencers online, or advised them not to text their friend back when they are still upset. If not, check out this great article about discussing social media and social comparisons with your teen or this article about impulsive decisions on social media (it’s geared towards teens with ADHD, but applies to all teens!). Both articles emphasize the importance of talking with your teens about social media, texting, and online communication. New data coming out of COVID-19 is also reminding us that online interactions can’t replace in-person interactions when it comes to warding off loneliness.

Another major downside to social media, texting, and online gaming is how often it can get in the way of in-person interaction, especially with family. This tension between staying connected via our phones and being fully present at home is tough for most adults, and even harder for teens! One of the best things you can do for your teen’s media use is to model distraction-free interaction. Set aside a time each day when you put away your phone and talk, do an activity, or just hang out with your teen. If your teen is having a hard time carving out time for family relationships due to media use, consider creating a family media use plan to set clear expectations around media use in the home. 

Finally, phones and social media are also changing teen dating. The vast majority of teens still meet dating partners in person, not online. However, half of teens have used social media to start a relationship by ‘friending’ or sending a message online; and, the majority of interactions during teen relationships are over text, not in person. This shift brings all the complexities of online interactions with friends, and more. Online and text conversations are much more likely to lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and related impulsive behavior than in person conversations. For example, a teen might misunderstand a partner’s text and then call them multiple times in a row. Bringing social media into a romantic relationship also opens the door to more serious situations like cyberbullying or abuse, which is reported by 10% of all teens. Again, talking to your teen before problems arise and maintaining an open, non-judgmental line of communication about these topics is the best way to support your teen and keep them safe.

Balancing our frustrations and fears surrounding social media and texting, and recognizing the growing importance of phones and social media in teenage friendships and romantic relationships is tough! The best way to take on this issue is with your teen, through conversation.


February 18, 2021
Michelle Kuhn, PhD | Clinical Advisor

Michelle Kuhn, PhD | Clinical Advisor

Michelle Kuhn, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her BA from The George Washington University and her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Kuhn provides services to children, adolescents, and their families, utilizing evidence-based behavioral and cognitive-behavioral approaches. She has specialized training in mood and anxiety disorders, suicidality and self-injury, attention and behavior problems, and trauma. Dr. Kuhn also researches new treatments for children and their families in the field of neurodevelopment disorders.

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