Nothing has influenced the dynamics of today’s young friendships as much as access to smartphones and social media, experts say. According to surveys by Pew Research Center, nearly 95% of America’s kids ages 13-17 have access to a smartphone. And almost half of kids with access to social media say they are on at least one platform “almost constantly,” with TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram capturing the most youth attention.
At the same time, youth depression, especially among adolescent girls, is increasing, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year.
We asked two leading experts on kids and digital connection about the impact of smartphones and social media on young friendships.
Seattle’s Dr. Katie Davis is an associate professor at the University of Washington, director of the UW Digital Youth Lab, former elementary school teacher, and author of the recently released book “Technology’s Child: Digital Media’s Role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up.”
Emily Cherkin, M. Ed, is a Seattle-based former middle school teacher and founder of The Screentime Consultant, where she works with parents, companies, and schools to help them become more intentional about the use of technology. Her book, “The Screentime Solution: A Judgment-Free Guide to Becoming a Tech-Intentional Family” will be available in January.
Seattle’s Child: Have smartphones and social media changed the meaning of friendship for children?
Dr. Katie Davis: I don’t think technology has changed the meaning of friendship, but it has certainly changed the dynamics. Given how important peer relationships are to adolescent development, anything that impacts the way they’re formed or how they’re carried out is a big deal. I see social media as an amplifier of existing friendship and peer dynamics. The highs are really high, and the lows are pretty low. Social media can make peer interactions very public and enduring. It can also make it easy to see and quantify a person’s popularity. And all of this is happening around the clock. So, peer dynamics that may already be stressful for teens offline are amplified and made even more stressful online.
Emily Cherkin, M.Ed: Evolution takes time. There’s no way that in 20 years kids’ brains are changing so rapidly that the definition of friendship or the skills needed to build them have changed. But there is a cultural shift that has changed since the advent of devices and social media and the pandemic certainly exacerbated that. I would argue that things like access to social media and the pandemic have resulted in lost practice with the social skills that build healthy friendships. Children need to learn and practice skills offline if they’re going to make successful friendships.
Seattle’s Child: Are we talking just mental health when it comes to the importance of friendships?
Davis: Friendship impacts all of it, from mental health to physical health. I don’t think it can be overemphasized how important friendship is during the teen years. Think of kids at different stages as having certain developmental jobs. These are the front-and-center skills they need to master to set them up for success in the next stages of development. For tweens and teens, their developmental job is to form and maintain important and meaningful peer relationships and, within the context of those relationships, to figure out who they are and develop a satisfying sense of self and identity. The ability to do this sets them up for positive emotional development, mental health, and future relationship success.
Cherkin: In addressing screens and the challenges they bring kids, we are fighting to protect their future cognitive, mental, emotional, and physical health, period. Other than climate change, this is, in my mind, the biggest thing impacting our children and their future. One in three teen girls is considering suicide and 57% report anxiety and depression. It is a crisis. New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist I deeply respect, has said that we can now say there is a causal relationship here. There is enough research to say social media causes mental health epidemics in teen girls. We have to stop saying it’s just correlational. There’s no question about the health impacts. This is very real.
Seattle’s Child: How exactly does digital media, and especially social media, impact childhood friendships?
Davis: Teens have different kinds of social media experiences depending on the platform and how they’re using it. There’s the more public-facing social media experiences, like the public posts on Instagram and TikTok. And then there are the smaller, more private interactions among closer friendship circles— responding to close friends on Instagram or Snapchat or texting in group chats. Each of these contexts involves different interaction patterns, and they both introduce a whole bunch of complicated interpersonal dynamics. Being able to navigate these dynamics, for better or worse, has become part of adolescent peer relationships.
Let’s say you’ve got a small group of friends and they’re all in a group chat. And then one day, some of the friends decide to kick one kid out of the group chat. This new form of exclusion mirrors the kinds of exclusion that happen offline, but it’s just more insidious and never goes away.
In another direction, we know there’s a concerning rise in mental health concerns among teens, and a lot of teens are leaning on each other and sharing lots of emotional content through social media. That can become a source of stress on the receiving end – kids feel like they always need to be there for their friends, even if they’re being texted in the middle of the night. A friend texting you that they’re contemplating hurting themselves or even just sad can cause a lot of stress for a teen.
Keeping in mind these sources of stress –and asking your children about their specific experiences—can be a good way for parents to think about and connect with their children around their digital experiences. Teens are savvy social media users, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want or need their parents’ support and guidance.
Cherkin: I have a 5th-grader and a 9th-grader and I also taught middle school for 12 years, so I have a pretty good perspective on tweens. When I first started teaching, none of my students had smartphones at all, they were brand new and most adults didn’t even have them. Only an occasional kid would have a flip phone. And they’d be mortified if it went off because their parents made them take it to school, right?
Fast forward 10 years and they come into the classroom talking about things they’ve seen online or photos that had been posted of parties that they weren’t invited to or friends hanging out, tagging other friends, but not tagging them, or making comments about how somebody looked. It has infiltrated the dynamics of the classroom, it is [now] affecting their social relationships.
By the time I left the classroom in 2017, 95% of my students had smartphones. And all those pressures and ways of being left out and isolated have just gone up in the last five years, especially during the pandemic. Kids who aren’t connected feel left out and kids who are connected feel more left out because now they see all the things they are left out of. Either way, it leads to high levels of anxiety.
Seattle’s Child: Do kids distinguish between social media “friends” and real friends?
Davis: I think teens intuitively make the distinction. They know the people they are following on Instagram are not the same as their friends who are in a group chat on Snapchat. But the question of what’s required of a friend is definitely impacted by networked communication. It’s around-the-clock access and you feel like you always have to be on call, especially if your friend is struggling. So, I think there’s a lot more being put into that work, friendship, today.
Cherkin: Calling social media contacts “friends” is a manipulation of that word and it’s problematic. Parents and teachers have a huge responsibility in talking about what makes someone a good friend and why, regardless of whether or not they’re online. And then helping children understand that “friends” online is very different from friends in real life. We don’t have thousands of friends in real life. But we can have thousands of friends online. It’s not the same. Friendships are complicated.
For example, it’s not uncommon for my 11-year-old to come home and say “I had a fight with my friend.” At her age, we have to unpack that. I feel grateful that she does not try to unpack it over text or over a social media platform. When we were in middle school and had a conflict with a friend, we might go home and feel bad or sad and then maybe we could call someone and talk about it. What happens now is kids come home, they post it on a social media account, and hundreds if not thousands of kids may read and respond to it. So something that might be a minor conflict becomes this massive thing — and it’s recorded. It’s no longer about conflict resolution between two people.
Seattle’s Child: And what about helping a child define the benefits and requirements of real friendship? How can parents help here?
Cherkin: Ask them: “What does it mean to be a friend? How do you define ‘friend’? What does a good friend do? And what does a good friend not do?” It’s an exercise worth doing and putting down on a piece of paper. I’m a big fan of pen and paper. Then we parents have work to do here. When a kid comes home with feelings hurt by a friend, we want to fix it. But hurt feelings are a normal part of childhood and development and friendship. And the point isn’t to fix it; it is to help children navigate it. Right now, I’d also say to parents that your kid who is 11 chronologically is 9 emotionally and 15 is 13. This is because of the isolation during COVID and the lack of opportunities to practice in-person when our kids were out of school for so long. This dramatically impacted social skills. If you’re 11 years old emotionally and you’ve now hit puberty and fallen behind in social skills all at once, it’s a perfect storm. Don’t hand them a smartphone.
Seattle’s Child: The average child receives their first smartphone between ages 10 and 12, according to a Stanford University study. Do you have thoughts on that? What is the right age?
Davis: As a parent, 10 seems very young to me, but I know that there are many factors involved in a parent’s decision to get their child a phone. For instance, I have a six-year-old, and I’m going to be following what his peers are doing as well as what’s going on at school. Is not having a phone getting to a point where he’s feeling like he’s missing out on something, either socially or academically? I’m not convinced that children are missing out on a ton without a phone at 10. But I believe the right age is very specific to the child, where they are in terms of their maturity level, and also what’s going on around them in their peer group and at school. The right age is going to vary from child to child.
I like to think in analogies. When you’re raising a kid and teaching them to ride a bike, or teaching them to swim, you don’t just put them on a two-wheeler automatically or you don’t just throw them in the deep end of the pool. You give them appropriate supports — training wheels, swim armbands, and floatation devices, to help them.
It’s the same with smartphones and social media. What training wheels can you provide for your child as they’re entering into owning a phone or starting to engage with social media? There are a lot of tools out there. For example, some phones are specifically targeted to teens and they come with a variety of parental controls — how long kids can be on a particular platform, during what part of the day, what platforms they can use, and who they can interact with. But it’s important that parents not use these tools to spy on their kids. Ideally, installing and using them is part of an ongoing conversation between parent and child about the opportunities and challenges presented by phones and social media.(For more on monitoring tools, read Parental control: Does monitoring work?)
Cherkin: I always joke that I’ve told my kids they will get their first phone at 25, that way I could come down from there and they’ll think I’m so nice. I advise: Delay as long as possible. But I would say, a minimum of 16 years old. Why would we hand them a highly addictive, highly problematic tool and then be surprised when there are problems or addiction or mental health issues cropping up? Would you hand your 10-year-old car keys?
I don’t know a single parent who would do that. And yet, that’s what we’re doing. It’s not abnormal for kids to come home and say, “Everybody else has X, Y, and Z and I’m the only one who doesn’t and you’re the worst parent in the world.” That’s not new. That’s happened for centuries. The problem is, there’s a perception that we as parents are left out without our phones and social media, and we worry that our kids will be left out. That’s our parental anxiety, right? But, I’ve talked to hundreds of parents and not one of them has ever said to me, “I wish I’d given my kid a phone sooner.” It is always “I wish I had waited. I wish I knew then what I know now.”
And there’s another thing parents have to be aware of for all children right now. The impulse might be to give a child a smartphone for safety, so you can track them. But doing that creates other dangers. There’s been an uptick in predatory grooming and porn. Catfishing and scamming have just blown up in the last few years. What I say today is not what I said a few years ago, because it’s gotten that much worse. So I always say to parents, if you are not ready to talk about porn, to tell your kids what to do when they see porn, then they’re not ready to be on the internet. And they are certainly not ready for social media. If it doesn’t even matter if that they’re looking for [porn]. It’s not a question of if they will see it; it is a question of when they will see it.
The Federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act puts the age limit at 13. That’s the law, even if it is not enforced. I would argue that is still way too young.
Seattle’s Child: So where do you start? How can you help your kids feel connected to their tech-savvy friends or ease them into healthy usage?
Davis: Have conversations with kids about why you’re using monitoring tools, or ideally even negotiate with them about what are sensible kinds of monitoring and what should be allowed. Research today shows that a lot of teens want support and that they thrive most with clear boundaries. Perhaps counterintuitively, establishing clear boundaries can actually give teens a sense of freedom. They know exactly what to expect. And then within those boundaries, they have the freedom to express themselves and pursue their interests.
Remember that early adolescence is a process of increasing independence and autonomy but in the context of supportive relationships. It’s about developing autonomy but maintaining connection. That’s why I think involving kids in the decision-making and the conversation is important. At 11 or 12, they’re old enough to really understand and have a conversation about the risks out there. And they’re old enough to tell parents what they’re excited about, and what they’re nervous about, and have parents really listen and work with them. For it to feel like a self-directed (autonomous) experience, kids need to be part of that conversation.
At the same time, parents have every right to start them off slowly and to maintain a lot of involvement in what their child is doing, at least in the early years. Tools like teen-oriented operating systems and parental monitoring apps allow kids to gradually gain experience with networked communication in the context of parental supervision and support. Maybe they start off communicating just with their parents and then with a small group of close friends. Then depending on how that goes, parents can gradually introduce more.
Cherkin: My daughter is 11 and some of her friends have phones and they text so we have recently started this conversation. We’ve actually been sharing my phone number as a starting place. She has no personal ownership of the phone. This is what I recommend parents do before they even think of giving a phone or social media access to a child.
Is it annoying? Totally. It is absolutely insane 99% of the time. But do you learn what it looks like to be in a fifth-grade group chat? Oh, yes. And it is fascinating. For example, in a single 30-minute period, I got 243 text messages. I was able to ask my daughter, do you want to get 243 text messages in 30 minutes? How do you even manage that, right? And 90% of it was misunderstanding and misinterpreting going back and forth among the kids. My instinct was to tell my daughter “Don’t ever do group chats,” because they’re super annoying. But I wanted her to come to that realization on her own. So we spent five days navigating that together. I recommend parents spend at least a week with their kids navigating it.
Recently, my daughter got into a conflict with a friend and they’d start texting after school. She was using my phone. And I would sit with her and offer guidance like “Don’t start writing back when you’re mad.” I saw firsthand how those little dots that tell you that someone’s writing back can ratchet anxiety up. I was able to help her calm down and get to think about what message she really wanted to convey. My end goal with her was to get her to call her friend because vocal connection is easier. There was so much misunderstanding in that texting. I know there are “kid-friendly” phones out there. Generally, I don’t recommend them, because I think they create more problems than they solve.
Seattle’s Child: What’s your bottom line on this issue of social media’s impact on kids’ friendships and mental health?
Davis: Bottom line—social media is an amplifier of all the good and the bad, the exciting and the stressful, associated with adolescent friendships. Today’s teens are doing what teens have always done—figuring out who they are in the context of their peer relationships—but social media and smartphones change the dynamics and raise the stakes. Teens may be more technically savvy than their parents, but they still need our support in managing the interpersonal dynamics and stressors that frequently arise online.
At the same time, I would like to see the platforms themselves take more of a role in supporting kids, and I know many of them are trying by introducing features like take-a-break nudges and private-by-default accounts. How effective these efforts are remains to be seen, and I’m skeptical that we can rely on tech companies to figure this out without government intervention.
Cherkin: This isn’t a kid problem. This is an adult challenge. Parents are inundated with social media 24/7 and that has increased our own anxiety and that, in turn, impacts our kids. To me, this is evidence of why we should delay social media as a tool for friendships for kids. We as parents have to get a handle on it first in order to be able to help our kids and it’s hard. I am not saying that parents can just easily say no. But social media plays on our humanness, our need to belong, and our need to be validated. And for developing teens and tweens especially, that peer validation is hugely important.