Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is shining a glaring spotlight on how social media affects teens.
“I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Haugen said in testimony before Congress. Parents are worried. And experts confirm they should be.
“Kids are especially vulnerable to the influence of their peers— both positive and negative,” Dr. Shannon Curry, clinical psychologist and director of the Curry Psychology Group in Orange County, California, told TODAY, adding that the “depersonalized” nature of online interactions can lead to surprising cruelty.
“The more time kids spend on social media, the more likely they are to feel depressed, to be bullied, to engage in self-harming behavior and to struggle with issues of self-esteem,” Curry said.
To understand how kids are really using social media, we asked nine teens, ages 13 to 18, to share how apps such as Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok influence their lives. Their revelations support the research that the constant, just-a-click-away access comes with an onslaught of emotions, pressure and fear.
In order to protect the privacy of the teens we spoke to and so they could speak freely, TODAY is withholding the full names of the individuals who spoke for this article.
Cate, 18, Washington
While on a trip abroad last summer, Cate uploaded highlights to her Instagram account.
“I tagged my location and my account is not private, so if anyone is looking through that location they can see my photos,” she said. “I had a couple of old men slide into my DMs saying ‘You’re so pretty’...That was interesting.”
“I feel like I have to take a post down if it doesn't get enough likes or comments.”
Cate told TODAY that she blames social media for making her body image struggles worse.
“Body image was always something I struggled with, and seeing on social media all these girls with perfect bodies and bikinis... I went through a phase of really not nourishing my body well enough and trying to fit this ideal on Instagram,” she said, adding that her parents knew she was struggling, but not the extent of what she was experiencing. “I thought, ‘Maybe fixing my body will make me feel happier and better.’
Cate says her body image has improved. But the pressures of social media still exist; she worries about getting likes on Instagram.
“I feel like I have to take a post down if it doesn't get enough likes or comments. It makes me wonder if people don't like that post,” she said.
Stigmas around certain metrics make her anxious, too.
“People always look at your Snap Score, which is the number of how many Snapchats you've sent out since you’ve had your account,” she explained. “If you hit too many, people view you as a hoe or slut, because they assume you’re Snapchatting all these boys. If you don’t have enough, (they think) 'Wow, you’re not cool enough.' There’s this pressure to have the perfect Snap Score.”
Mary, 16, Pennsylvania
Mary told TODAY she uses Instagram and Snapchat, but recently deleted her TikTok.
“It scares me how addictive it is,” she said, estimating she spends an hour and a half per day using Snapchat and another 45 minutes using Instagram: about 16 hours a week. “I used to be on TikTok too much. If I’m having a stressful week, I’ll delete social media, because I know that it’s such a distraction.”
She worries about tracking on Snapchat for users who utilize the ‘Snap Maps’ feature, which publicly tracks location. “It’s so easy to figure out where they live and where they are everyday,” Mary said.
“There have been a bunch of times fights start over an emoji.”
She said social apps make it easy for miscommunication to occur.
“People will just post things that are randomly funny, like ‘Look at what this person showed up to school in,’ but people talk and people screenshot things,” she said. “People that I know will sometimes post or comment things that could be taken certain ways. With social media you can’t see the person's face when they’re saying these things. There have been a bunch of times fights start over an emoji.”
Though she has concerns, Mary says she feels like she doesn't have a choice about being on social media: Staying active on the apps is non-negotiable.
“The only way to describe it is that everyone wants to go viral,” she explained. “It’s the pressure of ‘Oh this video might get 10 million likes, it might change your life’ ... (Teens) see these people who are millionaires now off making 10-second dance videos.”
Jack, 15, Georgia
While Jack has accounts on Instagram and TikTok, Snapchat is his go-to.
“Snapchat is probably my favorite, because it helps me communicate not just with people from my community, but with people from all over the world,” he said. “So even when I'm alone it makes me feel like I'm not.”
“Recreational drugs are illegal, but there are constantly people posting themselves doing them.”
For him, social media is an escape from reality.
“It makes me feel happy and puts me into a place where all my problems fade away,” Jack said, adding he knows that is not the situation for everyone. “I’m decently popular in my school and well-trusted so most of the time when people are getting picked on they come to me and my friends [for help]. Obviously I do what I can to intervene. Most of the time it’s the more popular people that tend to pick on less popular people.”
Social media makes things like drug use seem normal, he said.
“Recreational drugs where I live are illegal, but there are constantly people posting themselves doing them,” he said.
Jack told TODAY he is “very conscious” about what he shares on the internet, because he doesn’t want to mess up his future. But temptations exist.
“If I wanted to meet up with someone to do something late at night or, if I wanted to buy something that my parents would not approve of, I definitely could.”
Arianna, 13, Pennsylvania
A middle schooler, Arianna’s social media app of choice is TikTok. She says she likes it because she can discover interesting facts and recipes she would like her mom to make for the family.
But it’s not always a positive experience. Arianna has witnessed bullying of people she knows.
“It starts on social media and it carries on into school. ... Sometimes I feel left out.”
“I feel like it starts on social (media) and it carries on into school,” she said, adding that she has also seen friends participate in viral challenges. “Sometimes I feel left out, but other times I see that their parents aren't really as strict on them or they are doing other things that are stupid and we are too young to be doing.”
Arianna said she has never been a victim of bullying online, and would seek help from a trusted adult if it happened.
“I would tell my godsister and then me and her would talk about it,” she said. “And if it got out of hand I would tell my mom.”
Jalen, 15, Mississippi
Jalen’s greatest fear about social media is that what you share never goes away.
“Once you say something, you can never fully remove it,” he told TODAY. “People on social media can not always take the context or hear the tone of something you say.”
“I have been a part of a group chat that has gotten out of hand.”
While he has accounts on YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, the ninth grader said he “rarely” posts things. He also shared that group texting is another avenue for virtual bullying.
“I have been a part of a group chat that has gotten out of hand,” he admitted. “I didn’t participate in any of the conversations, but some of my close friends got in trouble for some things that were considered bullying.”
Sophie, 14, South Carolina
Sophie only uses Instagram, because that's the only social media app her parents allow her to use.
“There is a fear of not being good enough.”
"On other apps, like Snapchat, there is a lot of secrecy,” she explained, adding that her parents allow her the photo-sharing platform with the understanding they can access her account. “I wish I had Snapchat... there is a little bit of fear of missing out.”
Using just one social platform causes insecurities in the teen.
“There is a fear of not being good enough for the people that follow you,” she told TODAY.
Amir, 14, North Carolina
During the coronavirus pandemic, Amir relied on his phone for social interaction.
“I have a lot of friends that I can connect with there,” he said. “Especially during the time we were stuck at home … that felt like one of the only ways we could talk — socials, games, and texts.”
“I liked this girl and my friend messaged her on Instagram and told her.”
The middle schooler, who is active on YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, said social media “makes him feel good.” He did have an embarrassing situation that unfolded on social media, though.
“I liked this girl and my friend messaged her on Instagram and told her,” he explained. “Then she messaged me on Instagram to say she heard I liked her and asked if we could be just friends. She was nice about it, and the friend was trying to help, but I really wish he hadn’t told her.”
Amir said he mostly feels protected on social media.
“My mom checks my accounts to make sure no one suspicious or creepy is following me,” Amir said. “She likes to say ‘it’s not you I don’t trust, it’s the rest of the world.’”
Stephen, 18, Iowa
A high school senior, Stephen’s major fear is one of his many social media accounts being hacked.
“If they got hacked they could do bad things and make me look like a bad guy,” he said, noting his profiles are all public on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter.
“I’ll get random DMs that ask to be my sugar mama. It is weird.”
His concern is based on experience. “I've had my Facebook hacked before, but they removed my name, but if someone doesn't remove your name people will think you’re posting bad stuff,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll get random DMs that ask to be my sugar mama. It is weird ...Those are the types of things that get you hacked if you respond.”
While the 18-year-old said social apps don’t hurt his mental health, he worries about female friends.
"You’ll see a lot of skinny girls that have the perfect everything and some girls will look at that and wonder ‘Why can't I be like that?’ and ‘Why can’t I look like that?’”
He follows humor accounts which he occasionally shares with his parents. But he admits social platforms make it “way easier” to access content his parents might not like.
“Sometimes those funny pages will post something bad, and an Instagram model will pop up,” Stephen said. “I just have to explain it to them, ‘This is not who I follow.’”
Henrietta, 15, New York
Henrietta is only allowed to be on Instagram, a rule set by her parents.
“My mom actually put limits on my phone so I’m only on it 25 minutes per day now,” she said, adding that she had a phase where she really wanted Snapchat and TikTok.
She figured out how to circumvent the limitations, but also realized there's danger in that.
“Recently I signed into Instagram on one of my friend’s phones, because my (time) limit ran out, and she posted something to my story without me knowing,” Henrietta explained. “She also DM’d people from my account.”
“We’re wearing a figurative mask because we are curating our lives with the parts we want to show.”
Henrietta said it’s a complex time to be on social media.
“I think that teenagers right now are experiencing a really unique thing with wearing (physical) masks, so all of us never get to see each other's faces,” she said. “Social media is a way to show ourselves without our physical mask, but we’re wearing a figurative mask because we are curating our lives with the parts we want to show.”
“When you’re posting on social media, you’re much more aware of yourself, because you’re choosing what you're posting,” Henrietta said. “So that is also really scary, because we are choosing what parts of ourselves we want to put out into the world while becoming who we really are.”
TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have all publicly stated their commitment to protecting privacy, especially for young users, and preventing bullying. Here are statements from each of the social media apps on issues that affect teens: