Life as a teen without social media isn't easy, these families are navigating adolescence offline - GulfToday

Life as a teen without social media isn't easy, these families are navigating adolescence offline

Teens Social Media 2

Kate Bulkeley shows her sister, Sutton, a mask she made in school.

Kate Bulkeley's pledge to stay off social media in high school worked at first. She watched the benefits pile up: She was getting excellent grades. She read lots of books. The family had lively conversations around the dinner table and gathered for movie nights on weekends.

Then, as sophomore year got underway, the unexpected problems surfaced. She missed a student government meeting arranged on Snapchat. Her Model U.N. team communicates on social media, too, causing her scheduling problems. Even the Bible Study club at her Connecticut high school uses Instagram to communicate with members.

Gabriela Durham, a high school senior in Brooklyn, says navigating high school without social media has made her who she is today. She is a focused, organized, straight-A student with a string of college acceptances - and an accomplished dancer who recently made her Broadway debut. Not having social media has made her an "outsider,” in some ways. That used to hurt; now, she says, it feels like a badge of honor.

Teens Social Media 4 Kate Bulkeley uses her phone to print textbook pages while Sutton packs art materials ahead of a ski vacation. AP

With the damaging consequences of social media increasingly well documented, some parents are trying to raise their children with restrictions or blanket bans. Teenagers themselves are aware that too much social media is bad for them, and some are initiating social media "cleanses” because of the toll it takes on mental health and grades.

But it is hard to be a teenager today without social media. For those trying to stay off social platforms while most of their peers are immersed, the path can be challenging, isolating and at times liberating. It can also be life-changing.

This is a tale of two families, social media and the ever-present challenge of navigating high school. It's about what kids do when they can't extend their Snapstreaks or shut their bedroom doors and scroll through TikTok past midnight. It's about what families discuss when they're not having screen-time battles. It's also about persistent social ramifications.

Teens Social Media Gabriela Durham arranges items on her dresser. AP

The journeys of both families show the rewards and pitfalls of trying to avoid social media in a world that is saturated by it.

Concerns about children and phone use are not new. But there is a growing realization among experts that the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed adolescence. As youth coped with isolation and spent excessive time online, the pandemic effectively carved out a much larger space for social media in the lives of American kids.

No longer just a distraction or a way to connect with friends, social media has matured into a physical space and a community that almost all U.S. teenagers belong to. Up to 95% of teenagers say they use social media, with more than one-third saying they are on it "almost constantly,” according to the Pew Research Center.

Teens Social Media 3 Elena Romero, second from left, and her daughters Gabriela Durham, left, Gionna Durham, second from right, and Grace Durham, have dinner together.  

More than ever, teenagers live in a seamless digital and non-digital world in ways that most adults don’t recognize or understand, says Michael Rich, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School and head of the nonprofit Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital.

"Social media is now the air kids breathe,” says Rich, who runs the hospital’s Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders.

For better or worse, social media has become a home-base for socializing. It’s where many kids turn to forge their emerging identities, to seek advice, to unwind and relieve stress. It impacts how kids dress and talk. In this era of parental control apps and location tracking, social media is where this generation is finding freedom.

It is also increasingly clear that the more time youth spend online, the higher the risk of mental health problems.

Kids who use social media for more than three hours a day face double the risk of depression and anxiety, according to studies cited by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who issued an extraordinary public warning last spring about the risks of social media to young people.

Related articles