Social media and friendship: Navigating peer relationships during COVID-19

Social media safety tips for children and teens

With the rise of popularity of social media over the past few years, children and teens are connecting with their peers in a new way: behind a phone screen. And with the COVID-19 pandemic preventing most in-person connections, kids are inclined to connect with their peers via social media sites and texting — now more than ever. 

Dr. Amy Morse, a pediatric psychologist at CHOC, urges parents to keep an eye on how much time kids are spending on their phones. She cautions that social media has drastically changed the way that children and teens are learning to relate to one another.

Benefits of positive peer relationships

Friendships are vital to helping youth develop social competencies, says Dr. Morse. Friendships are protective — receiving a friendly glance, hug or high five from a friend can help them feel emotionally safe and supported in stressful situations. The body language and nonverbal cues offered by friends help children learn social context.

Positive peer relationships also provide a safe space for individuation. Through these relationships, kids can learn how to express their unique skills and talents. With supportive friends and in-person connection, children receive immediate feedback through conversation and body language that can help them understand how to relate to each other.

Social media

Different from the live, dynamic feedback that kids get from interacting with their peers in person, some kids are turning to their phones as their primary connection with peers, says Dr. Morse.

Over 65% of teens spend more than four hours on their phone per day, and that’s taking school, sleeping and any extra-curricular actives into account, says Dr. Morse. This means that instead of in-person connection, some children and teens are becoming reliant on social media content to understand their greater social context.

“Why are kids using and posting on social media so much? Because other kids are,” says Dr. Morse.

Kids are using social media to share experiences, gain approval from others, develop peer relationships and individuate from parents.

However, social media is missing a vital piece of what in-person connection offers: context.

Contextualizing social media

With social media, you are seeing a snapshot — and an often unrealistic representation — of someone’s experience. Dr. Morse explains that since kids are lacking context, they end up projecting their own context onto what they are seeing — often assuming that the person that is posting is in a much preferable position than them. 

In addition to lacking context, social media offers a sense of permeance and access. Posts, photos and videos can stay indefinitely — they aren’t fleeting like in real life. And, without privacy measures, those posts can be accessed by everyone.

With social media, kids are missing a big part of the feedback loop that in-person communication offers. With in-person connecting, kids know how their friend is reacting to what they say with verbal communication and nonverbal cues. If there is a miscommunication, kids can talk about it and move on. Since social media is missing body language and visible reactions, kids may not know how their peers truly feel or what they meant but their posts or comment.

If someone posts a negative comment to your kids, since posts stay indefinitely, they can go back and review the comments about them as much as they want. With every review, they may be reinforcing the negative messaging — leading to a more heightened negative reaction to that post.

Social media safety tips

Parents may have to step in explain to their kids why their friends stopped responding to them, that someone may not look like that outside of their photo, or what was happening behind the scenes of the ideal moment that someone posted on a vacation.

Dr. Morse offers these common-sense social media safety tips for parents to discuss with their children:

  • Ask your children and teens what they think is safe and unsafe regarding social media. You may be surprised with what they come up with!
  • Post with a purpose. Have children ask themselves why they are posting. Is it to get likes? Create a buzz? Share a happy experience?
  • Never post when upset. The permeance and access of social media can hurt your children if they are posting when they are heated or upset. Instead, encourage them to take a break and put the phone down.
  • Watch out for the thrill seekers. Be aware of people who are looking for fame or a buzz and how they may be influencing your kids.
  • Understand the context. Recognize a post for what it is — a post. For example, that photo of someone on a beach vacation is just a photo of a beach. Don’t overthink it.
  • Avoid negative chatter. Kids can get absorbed in the repetitious nature of negative chatter on social media and it can start pulling them into a dark place.
  • Increase peer interactions. Encourage your kids to hang out with friends in person.
  • Diversify friends. Your kids may have school friends, family friends, friends they do community activities with, video gaming friends and social media friends. That’s great, but make sure your kids’ friends aren’t all from one category. Kids need different experiences of positive feedback, and they can learn to cope with any negative feedback they receive.  
  • Monitor your child’s mood. Do they act differently after being on their phone? Are they quiet, nervous or sad?
  • Don’t get too personal on social media. Talk to your kids about social media and help them understand social context. They may not want to get too personal with people they are just starting to get to know.

One of the best ways that parents can help their kids navigate social media is to share their own feelings and experiences. Talk about how you feel after seeing a funny video on social media, or if a post conjures up some negative feelings for you. It’s important to normalize that social media may cause your children to feel different emotions. The new social context of social media can be difficult to navigate, so make sure that your children aren’t doing it alone.

Watch the full webinar with Dr. Amy Morse on the effects of social media:

CHOC’s Mental Health Education Programs offers free webinars to parents on a variety of topics. To view upcoming webinars, view the event calendar.

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