Smartphones, social media, and parenting teens/tweens

I was recently part of a big parenting discussion group about whether a parent should allow her tween to have a smartphone with Snapchat. It produced a lot of stories and anecdotes and feelings and opinions, including a few tales of teens finding ways to circumventing parental controls or even picking up burner phones in order to be able to do things like keep up streaks.* There were also some anecdotes of real-life consequences around location tracking, hazing, content getting shared and saved without consent, etc.

It was eye-opening and terrifying, because my kids are too young for this sort of thing today, but I’m sure the options will be even more overwhelming and difficult to manage by the time they’re this age. The social pressures in their and your peer group will influence what’s considered appropriate, regardless of any age listed for any terms of service, and there are so many things that are technically permitted but not exactly good for us in this world.

I wanted to take the time to formulate the long reply I had composed into a more publicly shareable blog post – which will likely come back to bite me in the ass! I’m sure things will shift between now and when my eldest hits iPhone age, but for now, my perspective on giving a 13yo a smartphone with Snapchat is a hard NO, and this is my reasoning why. (Permission given to post this more anonymised write-up.) Note that I’m not someone who considers myself a “parenting blogger” in the slightest, and this may well be my only foray into this territory.

Social media harms and further marginalises teens

All of the data we have, including from Facebook itself(!) is that social media in general spikes anxiety and self criticism and often self harm, even more so for girls, queer, trans, gender non conforming, and otherwise gender-marginalised kids.

I haven’t seen data about race, but let’s go ahead and assume it’s also somehow racist af and disproportionately harms non-white kids, bc let’s be real, it probably does. After all, look at who makes up tech and wields systemic power in that industry – mostly cis het white men, and not always responsible ones. These are demographically often the same folks who created and used such a racially biased set of machine learning model training data, that now, every single major cloud provider has stopped US law enforcement agencies from using their facial recognition models, because the models were constantly making dramatically racist predictions that cops were using to repeatedly wrongly detain largely Black people! (Here’s one link.) So, let’s assume they’re somehow also piling racist harm on top of all the other harm and trauma, OK? OK.

So with that presupposition, that these phones and their social apps are making almost all users more depressed, anxious, insecure, self critical, and probably bullied about any marginalised aspect of their identities, let’s proceed with a little thought experiment about teenager-hood.

Teenage years are already fraught

How secure were you as a teenager in your identity? Your friendships? How about crushes? Self esteem in general? How calm and controlled were your emotions, your hormones? How badly did you sometimes want to disappear/fade into the background, how desperately did you either want to avoid calling attention to yourself, or just like, avoid certain kinds of attention? Perhaps in particular male gaze-y attention, or weird hazing from early-sexualised mean girls?

Even if you identify as a cisgender woman, did you ever feel at odds with the patriarchal expectations of how you were meant to perform femininity growing up, around toxic masculinity and what I’d also call toxic femininity, about your appearance primarily existing to make you an appealing future sexual prospect for men? For me, at least, that aspect of society and how I was “supposed” to look as a teenage girl was at best deeply troubling.

Social apps use dark UX patterns!**

With that discomfort and tension from our own teenage experiences in mind, let’s look at how Snapchat magnifies this. Snapchat “friends” can haze each other in a a socially acceptable context for things like not regularly engaging with the app, because UX patterns like “streaks” strongly encourage regular engagement. Then when you give in and do participate, they can haze and bully you without consequences thanks to the nature of disappearing messages. They can literally real life bully you because of robust location tracking capabilities (!).

Teenage users can mess with their friends’ heads and sort of find folks even when they might have the prudence, self awareness, and restraint to try to withdraw and escape for a bit of a breather. I think this happens because the apps’ core UX patterns dictate that one must engage and re-engage not to be a social pariah. This means that in little microcosms of teenage users, cultures and user experience patterns evolve that enable and encourage this thinking and basically this constant hazing. So your teen can’t just dip in and out like one might be inclined to do for self preservation in, say, middle school.***

These apps worsen already bad self-image concerns

On this app, in a teenager microcosm, you’re performing ALL THE TIME. You’re putting on your best makeup and cutest top and posing in your skinniest angles, for this front facing selfie camera, putting out video and still image footage so that you can judge yourself, be judged by others, and basically have that all pile on to the massive amount of scrutiny, cruelty, self criticism, often leading to self harm, that teenagers and especially teenage girls already face, not to mention all other flavours of marginalised teens.

We struggle enough with helping teens battle body image and appearance issues relating to depression and self esteem; we don’t need to give them apps that significantly worsen these challenges at a particularly vulnerable juncture in their lives.

Data privacy issues

Even in apps with ostensibly disappearing messages, we have no knowledge or control over who creepily saves any footage. There are location-based features that allow real-world tracking; I will let readers conclude the real-world harms that can potentially stem from this.

We also have no idea today how any data in any of these apps may someday be used to further train the world-altering generative AI models of the present or future, and no sense of how things like deepfakes will only make it easier and easier for some literal child to slut shame (or worse) your literal child over real or fake highly sexualised and adult content, too. I hate to say this, especially as someone who works in and around Big Tech, but I truly believe that the market factors driving capitalist incentives in these apps will always care more about Progress than they do about protecting vulnerable teens.

Amplification of the negative

These apps make every reaction louder, the absence of reactions a noteworthy thing, the implementing of common sense or good boundaries and self restraint a punishable offence. They make it so your kid feels like they’re never off camera, never anything other than this curated and publicly consumable presence, with a counter for likes, with content that others feel enabled to treat as their property, it just goes on and on.

In real life, if you say something slightly embarrassing and everyone is talking about it for a week at school, you sort of want to crawl in a hole and disappear. Good luck doing that when everyone is mad at you for breaking your streak with them. Your teens are going to feel cajoled into experiencing a much more intense version of horror at whatever minor gaffe they may have committed, during a time when they’re frankly way more likely to overreact and maybe even self harm because of it.

I will again leave the reader to think about the possible amplification of the negative. Now instead of it being a thing you said, it’s a thing that gets screenshotted. It persists. It can scale, too, and go viral. Talk to anyone adult who’s ever gone viral about anything online, ever – it can be a double-edged sword with weird and sometimes shockingly harsh haters in the mix. How do you think a teen would feel going viral for something that made them feel worse about themselves? What do you think a teen might be willing to do as a result of those feelings?

A parent’s job is to say no

I think all of the possibilities of how social media among teens can be so damaging, in so many ways that I’m sure I am not fully seeing, enumerating, or articulating. But I’d argue that, as parents of teens, maybe we shouldn’t have to perfectly articulate all this in order to come to a “no” conclusion. A pal pointed out that we don’t let 13-year-olds buy guns or drive cars, either, do we? It’s just too, too young.

Teens have minds that we know are still developing, and that are caught in the throes of these huge hormonal ups and downs. They’re in this prime chapter of life for pushing back and rebelling, yes, but I don’t think that means it’s worth it to give them the keys to this dangerous kingdom, and then for us to essentially run an experiment to see how they withstand the digital equivalent of a highly addictive, deliberately targeted drug, used by a destructive group of fellow addicts who have no interest in your kid getting or staying sober. Nothing about these systems is designed for our kids to have good outcomes.

“It’s just talking with friends!”

On the surface, kids ask for this stuff because they say it’s about talking to their friends. It’s not like this is a lie, but of course, there are *definitely* other ways they can talk to friends. Of course it also gets harder when an entire peer group is using a given app, and other parents have chosen a different level of permissiveness than you are trying to choose. I can see this being a tremendous challenge in our own family down the road.

But my counterpoint is this: A friend who refuses to engage outside of Snapchat, if you say it’s harming you to use it, is being a bad friend. Even a 13yo likely grasps this on a fundamental emotional level, despite perhaps not wanting to confront it head-on. (After all, we are often friends with the people who harm us the most during our teenage years. This is a time when we are so desperate to belong and be loved.)

Also, the depressing but likely accurate point made time and again in multiple comments from multiple pals, is that kids are so addicted to social media that they will find a way to get illicit phones and/or bypass controls to install this stuff behind a parent’s back, damn the consequences. I feel like the least we can do as parents is say no firmly, talk about this with them, share our own experiences and vulnerabilities, and help them understand why we’re saying no out of love. We can impose consequences when they find their way to the highly addictive drug their entire social circle has come to adore, during their primary rebellion years. Sigh.

And again, I say this with the infinite wisdom of having kids who are much younger than all this.

Please feel free to print out this blog post and snail-mail it to me when you want to force me to confront whatever tech hypocrisy I’m surely battling when mine are teens. They’ll probably be using large language models to “write” essays on why I should let them do all the things I’m saying no to in this post. And Claude help me when I actually have to lay down firm consequences, stick to them, ensure they aren’t bypassing my digital controls, etc – I literally work in tech, sometimes helping other companies with their technical security posture, and yet I foresee that last one being a problem.

But I still say no as of today.

Edited to add: after writing this up, I listened to episode 131 of Offline (direct video link here), which has been making the rounds on many US podcasts I listen to since Haidt clearly has a book out right now. :) But I find that my views align largely with a lot of his findings, despite my differing on some point and perspectives he has. The idea of working with the community for a phone-free school makes so much sense in terms of fostering socialising and avoiding some of the negative effects that teens on mobile social media can fall into.

There’s also this bill calling for cigarette-style warnings on social media – but I think a warning is nowhere near the full picture, and that we really have to push back directly as parents.

*A “streak” is a concept, usually in mobile apps, where you’re encouraged to make sure you use the application in a regular pattern without missing a day. A recent popular example in the more grownup side of things where streaks have been popularised would be Wordle.
**In User Experience (UX), a Dark Pattern is something that is designed to mislead users or manipulate them into doing something, usually that they didn’t intend to do, such as making an expensive purchase for an in-game item, or that benefits the company rather than the user, such as agreeing to share data with other companies.

While I’m sure actual UX researchers (and Snap folks) would push back on my definition, and I might acquiesce that we need a new term for this, I stand by the idea that this app’s UX patterns make you engage with people who are harming you and whom you might prefer not to engage with, because addictive UX patterns like streaks mean that you’ll experience negative social consequences if you opt out.
***US middle school would be around age 11 to 14, roughly equivalent I suppose to years 5-9 in the UK I believe.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *