Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Friday, July 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Life as a teen without social media isn’t easy. These families are navigating adolescence offline

With the damaging consequences of social media increasingly well documented, some parents are trying to raise their children with restrictions or blanket bans.

WESTPORT, Conn. (AP) — 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.

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.

Courthouse News’ podcast Sidebar tackles the stories you need to know from the legal world. Join our hosts as they take you in and out of courtrooms in the U.S. and beyond.

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.

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.

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.

Those were the concerns of the Bulkeleys and Gabriela’s mother, Elena Romero. Both set strict rules starting when their kids were young and still in elementary school. They delayed giving phones until middle school and made social media off limits until 18. They educated the girls, and their younger siblings, on the impact of social media on young brains, on online privacy concerns, on the dangers of posting photos or comments that can come back to haunt you.

In the absence of social media, at least in these two homes, there is a noticeable absence of screen time battles. But the kids and parents agree: It’s not always easy.


At school, on the subway and at dance classes around New York City, Gabriela is surrounded by reminders that social media is everywhere — except on her phone.

Growing up without it has meant missing out on things. Everyone but you gets the same jokes, practices the same TikTok dances, is up on the latest viral trends. When Gabriela was younger, that felt isolating; at times, it still does. But now, she sees not having social media as freeing.

“From my perspective, as an outsider,” she says, “it seems like a lot of kids use social media to promote a facade. And it’s really sad. Because social media is telling them how they should be and how they should look. It’s gotten to a point where everyone wants to look the same instead of being themselves.”

There is also friend drama on social media and a lack of honesty, humility and kindness that she feels lucky to be removed from.

Gabriela is a dance major at the Brooklyn High School of the Arts and dances outside of school seven days a week. Senior year got especially intense, with college and scholarship applications capped by an unexpected highlight of getting to perform at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre in March as part of a city showcase of high school musicals.

After a recent Saturday afternoon dance class in a Bronx church basement, the diverging paths between Gabriela and her peers is on full display. The other dancers, aged 11 to 16, sit cross-legged on the linoleum floor talking about social media.

“I am addicted,” says 15-year-old Arielle Williams, who stays up late scrolling through TikTok. “When I feel like I’m getting tired I say, ‘One more video.’ And then I keep saying, ‘One more video.’ And I stay up sometimes until 5 a.m.”

The other dancers gasp. One suggests they all check their phones’ weekly screen time.

“OH. MY,” says Arielle, staring at her screen. “My total was 68 hours last week.” That included 21 hours on TikTok.

Gabriela sits on the sidelines of the conversation, listening silently. But on the No. 2 subway home to Brooklyn, she shares her thoughts. “Those screen-time hours, it’s insane.”

As the train rumbles from the elevated tracks in the Bronx into the underground subway tunnels in Manhattan, Gabriela is on her phone. She texts with friends, listens to music and consults a subway app to count down the stops to her station in Brooklyn. The phone for her is a distraction limited to idle time, which has been strategically limited by Romero.

“My kids’ schedules will make your head spin,” Romero says as the family reconvenes Saturday night in their three-bedroom walkup in Bushwick. On school days, they’re up at 5:30 a.m. and out the door by 7. Romero drives the girls to their three schools scattered around Brooklyn, then takes the subway into Manhattan, where she teaches mass communications at the Fashion Institute of Technology.


Grace, 11, is a sixth grade cheerleader active in Girl Scouts, along with Gionna, 13, who sings, does debate team and has daily rehearsals for her middle school theater production.

“I’m so booked my free time is to sleep,” says Gabriela, who tries to be in bed by 10:30 p.m.

In New York City, it’s common for kids to get phones early in elementary school, but Romero waited until each daughter reached middle school and started taking public transportation home alone. Years ago, she sat them down to watch “The Social Dilemma,” a documentary that Gabriela says made her realize how tech companies manipulate their users.

Her mom’s rules are simple: No social media on phones until 18. The girls are allowed to use YouTube on their computers but not post videos. Romero doesn’t set screen-time limits or restrict phone use in bedrooms.

“It’s a struggle, don’t get me wrong,” Romero says. Last year, the two younger girls “slipped.” They secretly downloaded TikTok for a few weeks before getting caught and sternly lectured.

Romero is considering whether to bend her rule for Gionna, an avid reader interested in becoming a Young Adult “Bookstagrammer” — a book reviewer on Instagram. Gionna wants to be a writer when she grows up and loves the idea that reviewers get books for free.

Her mother is torn. Romero's main concern was social media during middle school, a critical age where kids are forming their identity. She supports the idea of using social media responsibly as a tool to pursue passions.

“When you’re a little older,” she tells her girls, “you’ll realize Mom was not as crazy as you thought.”


In the upscale suburb of Westport, Connecticut, the Bulkeleys have faced similar questions about bending their rules. But not for the reason they had anticipated.

Kate was perfectly content to not have social media. Her parents had figured at some point she might resist their ban because of peer pressure or fear of missing out. But the 15-year-old sees it as a waste of time. She describes herself as academic, introverted and focused on building up extracurricular activities.

That's why she needed Instagram.

“I needed it to be co-president of my Bible Study Club,” Kate explains, seated with her family in the living room of their two-story home.

As Kate’s sophomore year started, she told her parents that she was excited to be leading a variety of clubs but needed social media to do her job. They agreed to let her have Instagram for her afterschool activities, which they found ironic and frustrating. “It was the school that really drove the fact that we had to reconsider our rule about no social media,” says Steph Bulkeley, Kate’s mother.

Schools talk the talk about limiting screen time and the dangers of social media, says Kate's dad, Russ Bulkeley. But technology is rapidly becoming part of the school day. Kate’s high school and their 13-year-old daughter Sutton’s middle school have cell phone bans that aren’t enforced. Teachers will ask students to take out their phones to photograph material during class time.

The Bulkeleys aren’t on board with that, but feel powerless to change it. When their girls were still in elementary school, the Bulkeleys were inspired by the “Wait Until 8th” pledge, which encourages parents to wait to give children smartphones, and access to social media, until at least 8th grade or about age 13. Some experts say waiting until 16 is better. Others feel banning social media isn’t the answer, and that kids need to learn to live with the technology because it’s not going anywhere.


Ultimately they gave in to Kate’s plea because they trust her, and because she’s too busy to devote much time to social media.

Both Kate and Sutton wrap up afterschool activities that include theater and dance classes at 8:30 p.m. most weeknights. They get home, finish homework and try to be in bed by 11.

Kate spends an average of two hours a week on her phone. That is significantly less than most, according to a 2023 Gallup poll that found over half of U.S. teens spend an average of five hours each day on social media. She uses her phone mainly to make calls, text friends, check grades and take photos. She doesn’t post or share pictures, one of her parents’ rules. Others: No phones allowed in bedrooms. All devices stay on a ledge between the kitchen and living room. TV isn't allowed on school nights.

Kate has rejected her parents' offer to pay her for waiting to use social media. But she is embarking slowly on the apps. She has set a six-minute daily time limit as a reminder not to dawdle on Instagram.

Having the app came in handy earlier this year at a Model UN conference where students from around the world exchanged contact details: “Nobody asked for phone numbers. You gave your Instagram,” Kate says. She is resisting Snapchat, for fear she will find it addictive. She has asked a friend on student government to text her any important student government messages sent on Snapchat.

Sutton feels the weight of not having social media more than her older sister. The eighth grader describes herself as social but not popular.

“There’s a lot of popular girls that do a bunch of TikTok dances. That’s really what determines your popularity: TikTok,” Sutton says.

Kids in her grade are “obsessed with TikTok” and posting videos of themselves that look to her like carbon copies. The girls look the same in short crop tops and jeans and sound the same, speaking with a TikTok dialect that includes a lot of “Hey, guys!” and uptalk, their voices rising in tone at the end of a thought.

She feels left out at times but doesn’t feel the need to have social media, since one of her friends sends her the latest viral videos. She has seen firsthand the problems social media can cause in friend groups. “Two of my friends were having a fight. One thought the other one blocked her on Snapchat.”

There's a long way to go before these larger questions are resolved, with these two families and across the nation. Schools are trying. Some are banning phones entirely to hold students' focus and ensure that socializing happens face-to-face. It might, educators say, also help cut back on teen depression and anxiety.

That's something Sutton can understand at age 13 as she works to navigate the years ahead. From what she has seen, social media has changed in the past few years. It used to be a way for people to connect, to message and to get to know each other.

“It’s kind of just about bragging now," she says. "People post pictures of their trips to amazing places. Or looking beautiful. And it makes other people feel bad about themself.”


By JOCELYN GECKER AP Education Writer

The Associated Press’ education coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

Categories / Consumers, Media, Technology

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.