Whenever she has free time, Jayden Parks pulls out her phone and checks Instagram or Snapchat. She scrolls through photos, comparing herself to other teens portraying what seem to be perfect lives.
“It puts so much pressure on your self-esteem,” says 16-year-old Parks, a junior at Highlands Ranch High School with piercing blue eyes whose life is never-endingly busy with school assignments, a part-time job and caring for her younger siblings.
“Social media,” she says, “is where you prove yourself these days.”
Rachel Peete, 16, has become more self-conscious about her looks since she started using Instagram. She’s careful about the photos she posts for her 940 followers: She never posts photos of just herself. And she edits the color and style of each photo so it blends with the overall look of her page.
“In the long run,” the junior at Castle View High School says about how she chooses what to share, “I think this has protected me from posting something risky or even something that could hurt my own feelings.”
Parks and Peete, and other teens, school counselors and mental health experts interviewed for this story, will tell you that what the studies show is true: The cultural ramifications introduced by social media have reduced the self-esteem, happiness and satisfaction of adolescents.
They are growing up in a time where social status is defined by the amount of friends, followers and likes a person has. Where events captured in photos and videos posted by peers cause an invasive fear of missing out. Where the pressure to constantly check devices and be in contact with friends is overwhelming. Where a phone replaces body language, facial expressions and voice tones.
That lack of face-to-face communication, studies and experts say, has caused a decline in young people’s emotional intelligence — the ability to express and handle emotions, resolve conflict and manage interpersonal relationships.
And that — combined with access to infinite online content and unceasing flow of information — has created a pressure-cooker for young people that has been linked to a rise in mental health problems, including heightened stress, dependency, depression and anxiety, according to studies, mental health professionals and those who work closely with adolescents and young people.
“In the past, it was the teachers, the adults, the parents that acted as mentors in the students’ lives, and I feel like that has shifted with technology use,” says Ann Guenther, assistant principal of Rocky Heights Middle School in Highlands Ranch. “The bottom line is our students are using social media as a way to get peer approval.”
‘Device is controlling the kids’
Although social media can allow teens and adolescents to connect and communicate over shared interests, it also can have a negative impact on the way they view themselves and their peers, according to a 2015 report by Pew Research Center.
The nationwide online survey of teens ages 13 to 17 found 53 percent saw people posting to social media about events to which they weren’t invited, and 21 percent of teens reported feeling worse about their own life because of what they saw from other friends on social media. Sixty-eight percent of teens experienced drama among their friends on social media. And 26 percent had a conflict with a friend over something that happened online or over text messages.
Nearly three-quarters of teens ages 13-17 had a smartphone or had access to one, another 2015 Pew study reported. Of those, 92 percent went online daily, 56 percent went online multiple times a day and 24 percent went online almost constantly.
And research shows children as young as 10 have cellphones and 50 percent of 12-year-olds have social media accounts.
“Kids are growing up talking to devices, not people,” says Douglas County Deputy Jay Martin, who teaches classes for Y.E.S.S., the Youth, Education and Safety in Schools program, a partnership between the Douglas County School District and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. “The value of who they are as a person is affected by other people on social media.”
Parks agrees: When she is on Facebook, she feels stressed by the bombardment of news articles and celebrity gossip on her feed. When she’s on Instagram, she’s envious of other teens who have hundreds of followers.
“It’s the people who use social media who are usually going to get their feelings hurt,” Parks says.
On social media, everything is curated, points out Apryl Alexander, clinical assistant professor at University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology. Individuals are formulating their best image — posting flawless photos of themselves, their friends, the places they visit — which results in comparison, judgment and feelings of exclusion among peers in their social media circle.
There is a fear of missing out, commonly referred to as FOMO among young adults.
“We are seeing negative effects such as lower self-esteem and lower life satisfaction,” says Alexander, who has worked with children and families in clinical and forensic settings.
The constant communication also often results in poor moods, heightened stress and anxiety — even when teens are separated from their social media devices, such as smartphones, tablets and smartwatches, mental health experts and educators say.
“They have social anxiety or insecurity because they are so used to being dependent on these devices,” Alexander says.
Sgt. Lori Bronner of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, who oversees deputies that serve as school resource officers in Douglas County high schools, is seeing the same reactions.
“The device is controlling the kids, not the kids controlling the device,” she says. “Their whole world is in the latest app and what other kids are doing (online). If there is a break in that communication, they don’t know how to function.”
Lack of conflict-resolution skills
When Wendy Strait first started teaching 33 years ago, cellphones were nonexistent.
But today, phones and social media play a role in most of the social or emotional issues for which students come to her, says Strait, a counselor at Mountain Vista High School for the past 17 years.
“Almost immediately after cellphones were introduced into a kid’s life, most counselors and teachers in general would say kids’ ability to specifically resolve conflict diminished substantially,” she says.
“How you treat people one-on-one isn’t how you treat people online a lot of times.”
Educators and parents in Douglas County say they are seeing a decline in young people’s emotional intelligence, defined by the website Pyschology Today as the “ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions and the emotions of others.” Having empathy, resolving conflict, recognizing emotions in oneself and others, and engaging in interpersonal relationships, are large indicators of emotional intelligence.
When young people communicate over technology, says Emily Laux, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, they miss the facial expressions, body language and voice tones that are indicative of emotion — tears, a frown, a smile, wrinkles on the forehead, a yawn, a sarcastic tone, a hug, a pat on the back.
“Just communicating over written words,” she says, “we lose so much of the rest of communication.”
Adds Strait: “The art of conversation has died in some ways.” Even something as personal and emotional as breaking up with a significant other is now often done over a text message.
Bronner, who has worked with Douglas County schools for the past two years, has noticed the struggle that many young people have to express emotions and resolve conflict.
Social media’s instant gratification and constant communication stunts the development of real-life coping skills necessary to learn and move forward from negative experiences, Bronner says.
“Their world falls apart because they don’t have the skills developed over time of having conversations face-to-face, reading each other, understanding,” she says. “At the drop of a hat, a kid’s world can fall apart because of something that might seem very small to us.”
Strait also has noticed that many young people don’t know how to be bored, how to disconnect and embrace silence and stillness.
“I just love them,” Strait says of her students. And “I wish we could make their world quieter.”
How schools are helping
To address mental health needs, Douglas County School District has implemented several programs, each with a social media component.
The district partners with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office for the Y.E.S.S. program, created in 2009 to teach positive life skills to students and parents.
Y.E.S.S. instructors periodically teach classes to elementary, middle and high school students on topics such as relationships, digital safety and substance abuse prevention. Instructors also host parent seminars and workshops. Classes include videos, questions and open discussion on some of the harder topics teens are facing, such as intimacy and exposure to drugs and alcohol.
The goal isn’t to scare students, says Martin, the deputy who teaches Y.E.S.S. classes on digital safety in Douglas County schools, but to “present the information to them.”
Unlike the millennial generation — which describes those born in the 1980s and 1990s — many of today’s adolescents and teens appear to have an awareness of the adverse affects of social media use, Martin says.
“This generation sees that there is a problem and corrections need to be made,” he says.
Three years ago, the district established a full-time Prevention and School Culture team with seven members who come from varied backgrounds — law enforcement, education and healthcare. They lead seminars on such topics as resiliency and kindness for elementary school students, and healthy boundaries, healthy relationships and substance abuse prevention for middle and high school students. One of its main programs is Sources of Strength, which is aimed at preventing suicide.
The only department of its kind among schools in Colorado, team members say, the program gives students the tools to succeed before a crisis happens.
“I want school to be a place where kids feel connected, valued ... a safe haven for them if home isn’t that place,” says Cindy Redfern, a former elementary school teacher on the team. “We know that if kids feel more connected and valued, the more likely they are to be able to learn.”
When asked about the top 10 stressors in a kid’s life, social media is always on the list, says team member Kimberly Moore, a former elementary school assistant principal.
“Social media always comes up as a stressor because it never turns off,” she says. “As young as they are, and when they don’t have boundaries, they don’t know how to regulate it themselves.”
Laux, of Children’s Hospital Colorado, considers the beginning of high school to be the “ideal age” to start using social media and smartphones.
“Our brains are developing pretty rapidly in adolescence, so what an eighth-grader can handle and what a 10th- or 12th-grader can handle are significantly different,” says Laux, who works with young people ages 5 to 17.
“Research says the best thing to do is limit time … Really being on phones all day every day is what has been most directly linked with some of the negative outcomes.”
Brett Siebert, a junior at Castle View High School in Castle Rock, and Tennissen Rockett, a junior at Highlands Ranch High School, would agree: They have made specific and thoughtful choices about their social media use.
Siebert, a self-confident 16-year-old unafraid to engage in a social media “comment war” if he finds a comment offensive, acknowledges social media has changed the way students connect. Some of his male peers are too up-front and forward in their texts to girls, he says. And some peers have hundreds of friends on apps like Snapchat but only know a handful of those friends in real life.
Siebert primarily uses Instagram to keep up with friends who have moved away or peers that he doesn’t talk to often. He also spends a lot of time away from the online world volunteering at school events or studying.
“It can do good if people are smart about it,” he says about social media. “It can be bad if people use it as their only tools of meeting new people.”
Rockett, a charismatic teen who works part-time as a lifeguard, dislikes Facebook because he thinks some people come off as entitled and overly opinionated in their posts.
So he sticks to posting photos on Instagram of his close friends and family outings.
“Social media is just another time-waster,” he says. “I prefer to talk to people in person.”