More than half of Australian parents with teenagers say social media use is their top concern when it comes to their child’s wellbeing.

But interestingly, that’s not what teenagers are most worried about.

In a tally of the key issues that teens say most concern them, social media and tech ranked at a lowly 24 in the list compiled by online youth support service ReachOut.

So why the disparity?

Mismatched worries

Jackie Hallan, interim chief executive of ReachOut says young adults are mostly more tech savvy and more capable of using their devices as tools for good than they’re given credit for.

“We’re hearing that young people are using social media in positive ways to get support,” she says.

“For example, knowing that in some cases your teen might be turning to social media and technology to help them cope when something is going on for them — rather than the tech being the issue — can be a turning point.”

Jackie Hallan hopes the report will bridge the gaps and address the support needs of both teens, and parents and carers.(Supplied: ReachOut)

Jackie says while parental concerns about bullying, kids feeling sidelined for not being online, and glamorised ideals of how to live were valid, there were also plenty of roses among the thorns.

“Where there are those negative sides of social media, parents and carers maybe aren’t seeing the positive connections and aren’t hearing about that as much,” she says.

Jackie believes one of the factors could be that teen phone use is highly visible to parents, so it’s front of mind, whereas more veiled issues such as worry about school work and exam performance may be less noticeable.

Kids harness the positives from online

When we took to the streets to find out how teens were using social media, we found that most used it as a tool to self-regulate.

“When I get home from school I get on it and scroll for a bit on TikTok and watch videos to calm down a bit, then I do my homework,” Adelaide student Evie says.

In the report, 57 per cent of teens surveyed say that they deliberately go online to take a break from their concerns.

“Definitely, if I’m seeing funny videos it can bring up my mood,” student Amelie says.

Social media use was a daily habit for these teens.(ABC News: Sharon Gordon)

The study found that young people today were experiencing worry at levels that they said significantly eroded their day-to-day wellbeing, and were turning to online for social connection and advice as well as distraction.

More than four in five experienced impacts on their mental health and wellbeing, with reported changes ranging from disturbed sleep to poor concentration and mood.

To cope, young people resoundingly voiced their need for stronger social connections, both within their local communities and in digital spaces.

What do young people worry about?

The 2022 survey found that worries about the future, study, and money were ranked as the highest-rated issues by young people overall.

Stress about the future was impacting young people’s behaviour and mood.

Among these young people, 66 per cent noticed changes in their mood, 65 per cent had trouble sleeping, 59 per cent experienced lack of motivation, and 54 per cent had trouble focusing.

“Our parents keep talking about everything getting more expensive and the cost of living, so you’re really worried about what job you’ll get and making sure you’ll be financially independent and free when you’re older,” student Lola says.

Sofie agrees. 

“I’m having some issues with social media now, but I know all of that will be irrelevant when I’m older,” the Adelaide student says.

“I’m never going to look back and think, ‘That was my biggest problem’.”

The survey asked about young people’s lives over the past 12 months, including the issues they were dealing with.(ABC News: Sharon Gordon)

What about parents?

Many parents were taken aback about the discrepancy between their worries and what the youths said troubled them.

“I didn’t realise there were so many other concerns. I would have thought that social media was the number one influence,” Quyen says.

“There’s always a mismatch between parents and your child.

“I think it’s just through communication and trying to understand each other more [that the gap closes], and parents opening the door for communication at an early age.”

But many remained wary about the possible harms from engaging in the digital world.

Out on the street, parents echoed each other’s calls for caution.

“For children growing up today, I don’t think they’re equipped to deal with social media bullying,” Adelaide mum Phuong says.

Fifty-nine per cent of parents said young people’s social media usage was of concern.(ABC News: Sharon Gordon)

In particular, caregivers were concerned about the amount of time that young people spent on social media. They felt digital devices were “addictive” and were concerned that young people had “an inability to get through the day without it”.

The parents surveyed felt teens were pressured to always be switched on, to always know what was happening, and to respond immediately to messages from friends.

“I don’t think kids understand how long things stay on the internet. It’s there forever,” Adelaide dad Ashley says.

What parents worry about during unsupervised online use of social media, web browsers and gaming.(ABC News: Sharon Gordon)

How to bridge the divide?

Of the parents and carers surveyed for the report, 59 per cent said young people’s social media usage was of concern.

But Adelaide teen Lola says parents “grew up in a different time, so they have lots of different worries about social media”.

She agrees that communication is the key to quelling parental fears about the dangers of the online world, and says it would go a long way to bridging the gulf between adult and young adult expectations of online behaviour and use.

“It can be nerve-racking sometimes talking with your parents about a lot of the things you’re worried about, but they’ve lived through a lot of things that you haven’t so you can get lots of good advice from them,” Lola says.

Adelaide mum Kelly says, “maybe I’m thinking that she shares with me more than she actually does, and I’m sure that’s [the same for] most parents”.

But Phuong is more philosophical.

“They won’t tell me everything, but at least if they do need help they know that I am here,” she says.

* The 2024 ReachOut report What Parents Worry About: Carer Concerns for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing based its findings on a nationally representative survey of 631 parents and carers from April 2023.