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In their own words: What young people wish they'd known about social media

A teenage boy sits on a brick barrier under a tree in a red and black flannel shirt with a white shirt underneath. He is holding a smart phone in his hand.
George Walker IV
Bao Le, 18, sits for a photo on Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. The Associated Press spoke with teenagers and young adults about their experiences on social media and what they wish they had known when they first got online.

It's dangerous. It's addictive. Get off your phone.

Kids constantly hear about the downsides of social media from the adults in their lives, often in the form of dire warnings and commands. But these adults did not grow up with social media themselves.

They didn't get a phone handed to them as toddlers, just to keep them quiet in a restaurant. They didn't join TikTok's predecessor and do silly dances before they even learned to read. They didn't have their schools shut down in a global pandemic, their connections to friends and peers relegated to phone and computer screens.

Kids coming of age with social media are forging ahead in a whole new world. And now that they are getting older, they have some advice for their younger peers.

Here’s what they wish they knew when they first got online.

“You don’t have to share everything”“

It’s so easy to look at your friends’ stories and feel this feeling of FOMO, of missing out and comparing yourself, like: ‘Oh, my friend just got a new car.’ It’s like this overwhelming sense of comparison. But the things that people post on social media, it’s just the highlight reel, like the 1% of their life that they want to showcase to other people.”

—Bao Le, 18, a freshman at Vanderbilt University

“Don’t take it too seriously”

“My main point of advice would be not to take it too seriously. Be yourself. I feel like what I was exposed to as a 12-year-old was much more limited than what is accessible to 12–year-olds nowadays. Younger kids want to be who they idolize. And when the TikTok stars or the social media stars are 20, 18, 16, they’re going to want to be like them. You’re getting younger kids that are now obsessing over products and brands, and it’s just getting really hard to be young. And it shouldn’t be really hard to be young. You should be enjoying childhood. And we shouldn’t be rushing to grow up. It’s OK to be 12. It’s OK to be young. It’s OK to enjoy childhood.”

—Doreen Malata, 22, a senior at the University of Maryland

“How addictive it is”

“It seems like it would be really easy to just put your phone down and stop scrolling. But it is not. If there was advice that I could give to my younger self, it would be to tell my parents to set up time limits for me — even though I would have never said that when I was starting social media. Also, I personally would not let my kid have TikTok. I would try to resist it as long as I could. It’s so addictive.”

—Sienna Keene, 17, a high school senior in Orinda, California

“Take a social media detox”

“When you first get these apps, it hits you — like, BOOM, there is so much content. Styles, fashion models. It really impacts you heavily when you first get it, this feeling of: ‘How do they do it? How do they look like this? How do they get clothes like that?’ When you’re new to social media, these trends can overtake you. I started to use screentime (monitoring) on my phone and limit the amount of time I am on social media. I’ve been taking phone detoxes. On weekends, I’ll take a social media detox for 10 hours or the majority of the day. I’ll hang out with my family, ride my bike. I only have notifications for my messages and workspaces. I don’t have any notifications on for social media apps.”

—Ava Havidic, 18, a high school senior in Broward County, Florida

“You are the one in control”

"Often I hear the term ‘social media user,’ but I felt like I was being used by social media. I had this routine of scrolling mindlessly through TikTok, just scrolling and scrolling and comparing myself to other people. It ultimately really affected my body image, my perception of what was considered beautiful or accepted into society. But the only thing I was getting out of social media was feeling fatigued, or I would feel sad.

"You can use social media to amplify your passions, but in order to do that you need to do a lot of work outside of social media, to discover who you are as a person, what matters to you and what contributions you can make to the world.”

—Lea Nepomuceno, 18, a freshman at George Washington University

“It’s a waste of time”

“I would say just don’t use it. It’s kind of a waste of time. You’re just having conversations about pointless things, random pop culture stuff. It just sucks your time. You’re not really getting anything out of it, just short-term satisfaction. It’s kind of meaningless. I know this is kind of outlandish, but I feel like there should be some sort of age limit because I don’t think children should be on the internet.”

—Mikael Makonnen, 18, a freshman at American University

“A lot of it is not real”

“A lot of people make their life artificial so that they’re perceived in a certain way. And I think going into social media, I wish I knew it is a tool to learn from. There’s so much information, and you’re able to learn so much about different things. ... I wish people had that outlook rather than the whole idea of other people viewing you and having to be seen a certain way.”

Nour Mahmoud, 21, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University

“It’s OK to put up boundaries and block someone”

“You can’t scroll on TikTok or look through Instagram without seeing supermodels who have edited their photos and are promoting unrealistic beauty standards. I don’t want to see these girls who pretend to be fitness influencers but are just promoting an eating disorder like “body checking” on my feed. That is one thing I wish I knew when I started: that it is OK to not want to look at that or want to consume it. It’s OK to protect yourself and your own body image. Another thing I wish I knew is that not everyone on social media is your friend. When you are young and impressionable and people are reaching out to you, just know that not everyone is as friendly as you think they are.”

—Madeleine Maestre, 18, a freshman at Santa Clara University

The Associated Press (“AP”) is the essential global news network, delivering fast, unbiased news from every corner of the world to all media platforms and formats. On any given day, more than half the world’s population sees news from the AP. Founded in 1846, the AP today is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering. The AP considers itself to be the backbone of the world’s information system, serving thousands of daily newspaper, radio, television, and online customers with coverage in text, photos, graphics, audio and video.