I came home one day in 8th grade to find giant red letters across the side of my house: SLUT.
I vividly remember the feeling of humiliation as I stood there paralyzed, cheeks red, my heart hammering. I felt like I was going to be sick. I scraped the sticky, red tape off the pale yellow texture, holding back tears and swallowing the burning in my throat, my face so close to the bumpy wall it blurred in front of my eyes.
Being bullied was awful enough in the nineties; I count this among my top five worst experiences growing up. But handing middle school children cell phones and social media access has introduced a whole new terrifying dimension. When it came time to decide about social media for my own kids, I didn’t only consider the potential for depression, anxiety, and social comparison. I imagined my degrading experience with the added humiliation of a public shaming that could be streamed and shared. And so I banned social media entirely.
My oldest daughter, Addison, got her first phone at age twelve, but no social media. The current average age for opening a social media account is 12.6 years. Even five years ago, Addison was in the minority among her peers, and so was I as her parent. The older she got, the more she stuck out.
She came home from her part-time job one day during sophomore year, exasperated: “I just walked by some cute guys, and one asked for my Snapchat. I told him I didn’t have social media. Before I could give him my number, he said, ‘You could’ve just told me you’re not interested.’” A teen without social media seems unbelievable.
Still, I firmly believe in my reasons for keeping her offline. Coverage of studies about social media’s impact on teens often highlight the caveat that it can be positive if used appropriately. But frankly, I’ve never met anyone who uses social media in the healthy way these studies praise. The best I’ve heard is I learned to use it responsibly or I set limits for myself. And that’s adults with fully developed brains. We talk about social media like we talk about addiction—for good reason. As Edward Tufte says in The Social Dilemma: “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”
There is real, hard data about the negative impact of social media on kids, especially teenaged girls. But teens themselves disagree: Despite findings about depression, anxiety, social comparison, eating disorders, bullying, self-harm, and suicidal ideation, only a third of teens think social media negatively affects people. Even fewer (9 percent) believe this applies to them. My daughter was fairly self-aware about it: “We all want to believe we’re the exception and think we can handle social media better than others,” she told me with a shrug.
And still, when she felt excluded from her friend group because “nobody texts or calls anyone anymore, mom,” I felt guilty. Once she started high school and later during COVID lockdowns, she felt isolated from her friends, and I felt responsible.
Maybe I’d just projected my own bullying experience onto her, scared that whatever might happen would live on the internet forever. Teens experiencing cyberbullying are four times more likely to have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide. Some tragically succeed, like 14-year-old Adriana Kuch, whose in-school assault was filmed and shared on TikTok.
And yet, even experts like Max Stossel, CEO of Social Awakening, an advocacy organization for healthy social media use, believe saying no is just too hard for parents: “Research shows that 10-14-year-old girls are hit hardest […] I would wait until 15,16, but that has just seemed less and less realistic for a lot of parents’ lives and kids’ lives.” Why isn’t it realistic? Are we resigned to social media rewiring our kids’ brains, and exposing them to constant peer pressure, instead of saying no like we say no to underage drinking?
Ultimately, despite all my reservations, I finally let my daughter have Snapchat and Instagram at age 17. I knew that if I didn’t, Addison would sign up for all the platforms the minute she turned 18, which made me worry that I’d set her up for a social media binge. Instead, I wanted to be available to offer support and oversight while she’s trying social media for the first time. I want her to be home with me, not alone in a dorm room. It was an argument Addison made repeatedly, and it stuck with me. She was right.
I will say that right after Addison signed up, I noticed an increase in phone pick-ups, with incessant notifications interrupting our conversations. But once I pointed that out, she focused on prioritizing in-person interactions over digital conversations. In the three months since, she’s maintained her GPA, work schedule, extracurriculars, and social activities. She takes a million more selfies now, but I don’t see the negative emotional or mental impacts I feared when she was younger.
I was impressed with Addison’s maturity when she agreed that waiting so long was the right call: “I don’t think I could have handled social media as a 14-year-old. I was much more insecure then, had fewer friends, and tried way harder to fit in. Not getting enough likes on posts would’ve messed with my self-esteem. Now I use it mostly to connect with my real-life friends and don’t give strangers access to my private profiles.”
Being in the minority when making a significant parenting decision sucks, but it’s worth it. I’m glad I waited. And as it turns out, so is my daughter.
Juliane Bergmann was born and raised by a German hippie mom and US Army soldier dad in a tiny village in Bavaria. She now lives in Montana with her blended family of eight and writes about psychology, recovery, parenting, and relationships. As a book coach and ghostwriter, she’s guided nine first-time authors through the book creation process. Come hang out on her internet porch here: https://julianebergmann.ghost.io/