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Social Media and Development: 7 Questions for the New Decade

In a very short time technology and virtual connections have woven into our everyday life and things seem to be changing at a breakneck pace. Many remember phones anchored to the wall with chords that limited space and privacy. Now it is estimated that over 5 billion people have mobile phones, over half being smartphones. Twitter and Facebook are just teenagers and Instagram is still in pre-adolescence. But in their short existence enlivened by smartphones, these platforms have altered social circles, learning, and relationships.

Author Jean Twenge stated that *iGen teens are now online twice as much as teens prior to the smartphone. Social media is an influential part of this trend which, remarkably, is consistent across all demographics. And there is truth that “everyone is doing it” exemplified by 97% of 12th graders spending time on social media.

Social media is not going away any time soon and its attraction is captured in this passage from Twenge’s book:

“Social media is destroying our lives,” one teen told Nancy Jo Sales in her book American Girls. “So why don’t you go off it?” Sales asked. “Because then we would have no life,” the girl said.

Despite this conundrum, social media will most likely continue to expand and transform, yet few have considered any influence on the trajectory of development from a psychosocial perspective. Culturally for adolescents, we hear that adulthood comes slowly and that anxiety, depression, and suicide rates have sharply risen. We hear of the decline of happiness and life satisfaction and that adolescence is an extension of childhood rather than a transition to adulthood. We hear that the importance of family and faith are on the decline. And more and more findings correlate social media with diminished well-being, loneliness, and decline in meaningful activities. Perhaps it’s time to consider how these changes have influenced development and what lies at the center of our lives where social media seems to have put down roots. 

Adolescence through early adulthood is the time of forming identity (see Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial stages). Finding out who you are is critical to entering the next stage of life of reciprocal and intimate relationships. And each of these stages is a process that requires time, effort, and reflection. Importantly, these developmental tasks require both quantity and quality in terms of experience and relationships. Engagement, being with, and developing competencies are processes built in the betweenness of live interaction. While social media can entertain and supplement, it cannot replace what has been hardwired into the experience of human development.

With these important developmental aspects in mind, step back from the social media routine and ask these questions individually, as a parent or as a family:

  • How do I experience presence? Presence is the quality of experience with others that builds trust, connection, and is an important buffer to the challenges previously mentioned. Starting before we can speak with our first and most important relationships, presence is truly being with another in the moment. It’s the feeling of being “felt” that requires three dimensions — and time. Most importantly, its face-to-face, live quality gives us a perspective for those we relate to at a distance. We long to belong and presence is the pull within felt when we are disengaged in life off the screen.
  • Who and what am I following — and why? Those with the most followers on social media are typically celebrities or those famous for being famous. Yet some researchers offer that, historically, our capacity for a typical social network taps out at about 150 people. If you fear missing out on something, consider how if effects your closest relationships and endeavors. Learning to say “no” to things that may temporarily feel like a “yes” brings you back to what is most important to you. 
  • Who and what is real and how do I know? Social media often portrays an image. And many times, these images are superficial and impossible to live up to. Unfortunately, the dark and incomplete aspects beneath these images are never portrayed except in the attacks, bullying, and abandonment common to all platforms. Comparison to an image is a hollow space — but it feels real. Perhaps this weight is a factor in the connection between extended time on social media and unhappiness.
  • What values are portrayed (overtly or implied)? Social media is often about persuasion. This type of content entices you to follow the herd. If you don’t, you feel left out or that your life doesn’t measure up. The key is to question what you are measuring up to. Blind acceptance and conformity rarely end up well, so consider if these implied values align with what matters to you.
  • Does social media have any impact on my day-to-day responsibilities? This connection is important to consider if you are experiencing any of the challenges mentioned above. Social media is designed to keep you engaged and much of this attraction happens at an unconscious level. Is this cutting into any of your roles, relationships, desires or responsibilities? Consider what you get from social media in exchange for your time. What does it feel like when you unplug? These questions will help you identify challenges to your daily life.
  • Are there Tech-free times and spaces in your day? Another way of considering this is to identify intentional and daily live connections with self, others, and nature. The impact of these three connections on quality of life is well documented.

These questions are simply meant to offer perspective between what we want and need versus choices in the moment. The technology and content of social media makes the time spent barely noticeable. But that means time not spent on other things. And that is the point.

In summary, social media is deeply embedded in popular culture and its draw is real and alluring. With conscious choice social media can complement areas of your life rather than consume it. Like other forms of entertainment or technology, its place in you or your family’s life should be seriously considered and managed.



Elkind, D. (1970). Erik Erikson’s eight ages of man. New York Times magazine, April, 81-86.

Sales, N. J. (2016). American girls: Social media and the secret lives of teenagers. Vintage.

Twenge, Jean M. iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us. Atria Books. Kindle Edition.

*iGen represent the 70+ million born between 1995 and 2012

Social Media and Development: 7 Questions for the New Decade

John C. Panepinto, PsyD, LPCS, NCC

John C. Panepinto, PsyD, LPCS, NCC, has worked in educational, clinical, and, private settings for over two decades. Presently, he balances roles as a consultant in early intervention for the largest school system in North Carolina, and as Clinical Psychologist for Carolina Developmental Pediatrics. He also maintains a private practice. Dr. Panepinto has written on parenting, development, emotional intelligence, resiliency, and performance psychology. He was the keynote speaker for the 2017 National Stay-At-Home Dad’s convention, and blogs on fatherhood. He helped to develop the processes and content for a National Character Education Award winning program in 2003. More at

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APA Reference
Panepinto, J. (2020). Social Media and Development: 7 Questions for the New Decade. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 Jan 2020 (Originally: 23 Jan 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 23 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.