Being 13: Perils of lurking on social media

Editor’s Note: Watch a CNN Special Report, “#Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens,” on CNNgo. Marion K. Underwood, is a professor of behavioral and brain sciences at The University of Texas at Dallas and Robert W. Faris is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Davis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.

Story highlights

Authors say teens who lurk on social media can suffer by feeling excluded when they see their classmates and friends having fun online

Posting online has become a "scorecard for popularity" among teens trying to elevate their social status, authors say

CNN  — 

Most adolescents with access to smart phones are living their social lives online as much as they do face-to-face. Adults worry that teens are hooked on social media, but most have no idea what teens are actually doing online.

Marion K. Underwood
Robert W. Faris

Over the past year, we collaborated with “Anderson Cooper 360” on an exploration of the hidden digital world of adolescents. We invited over 200 13-year olds from schools around the country to participate in a research project to discover what 13-year-olds are actually posting online.

Adolescents and their parents completed surveys about the child’s involvement with social media and psychological adjustment. Most importantly, teens agreed to download an app to their social media accounts that archived the content of everything they posted on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook from September, 2014, to April, 2015 (all posts and pictures, but not direct messaging).

In this study, we examined the content of what teens actually say and do on social media, not simply what they say they do — and what it means to them. Not only are 13-year-olds using social media to post, tweet, share, friend, block, and unfriend, adolescents are spending vast amounts of time just “lurking,” reading the never-ending stream of their peers’ activities without posting anything themselves.

More than one third of them said they check social media without posting 25 times or more per day on weekends, and our heaviest users said they use social media over 100 times daily, including during classes at school.

What do lurkers see?

When adolescents lurk online, what do they see? If they are scrolling through Instagram, they likely see highly groomed, curated, filtered pictures strategically posted at a time of day when peers will be online so as to attract the maximum number of likes and comments. One student in our study told us she takes over 100 selfies (pictures of herself) to get one she likes well enough to post.

On all social media feeds, young people are highly likely to see pictures of friends gathering without them, or larger groups having a wonderful time at parties to which they were not invited. Social media thus opens a window onto the (seemingly) more glamorous social lives of schoolmates, leaving many feeling less attractive and left out.

As they access social media throughout the day, teens will see how many peers liked, commented, favorited and retweeted their posts, and will take careful note of how they compare to the likes and favorites their peers receive. When they lurk online, teens are studying where they stand in the social network, who is in and who is out, and the numbers that serve as a barometer for social status.

What are the potential consequences of lurking online? We fear this is yet another context in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Popular, attractive, high-status youth seem to excel in the art of social media, and they use it adeptly to create their identities, build their brands, and expand their numbers of friends and followers. These teens post beautiful pictures and witty comments that immediately result in positive reinforcement from the peer group in the form of likes, comments, retweets and favorites.

One girl posted a selfie at 5:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving with the caption “Happy Thanksgiving,” and one hour later, her Instagram post had 70 comments, most of them highly flattering remarks about the picture: “Oh my God stop being so freaking perfect! I’m just kidding I’m so lucky to have u as my friend love Ya.”

These flattering comments were almost always followed by a thank you from the original poster often with a compliment to the commenter’s appearance, which served to further inflate the number of comments: “thank you perfect, I LOVE YOU. and I am beyond blessed to have you as my sweet friend,” and “Aww thanks sweet thang!❤ ilym (I love you much).”

The dangers

Youth who are less socially secure, who might be vulnerable to feeling lonely or sad or socially anxious, likely face several perils of lurking online. First, the more time they spend lurking, the more likely they are to observe friends having a wonderful time without them. In our study, nearly half said they had felt excluded by seeing social media posts about friends doing things together without them, and more disturbingly, over a third said they themselves had posted on social media in ways that made others feel excluded.

When we asked 13-year olds “What is the worst thing that happened to you on media, their responses included these:

  • Being excluded to some parties.
  • My best friends hung out without me, and posted it on instagram.
  • My friends went out without me and posted pictures on instagram then denied they were out together.
  • Not anything specific, but I don’t like when people post pictures or tweet about a party that I wasn’t invited to.
  • Seeing pictures posted by my friends doing things where I wasn’t included.

Even before the dawn of social media, adolescents cared deeply about fitting in and were hurt when they felt excluded from face-to-face interactions or by seeing the popular kids hang around together. What is different now is that social media affords frequent opportunities for all teens to see pictures of parties they were not invited to and friends having fun without them, images they would be spared if social media did not exist.

Second, adolescents who spend a great deal of time lurking online may be comparing their inner emotional experiences to everyone else’s filtered, carefully selected pictures chosen to be the most positive depiction of themselves having a marvelous time.

Vulnerable youth could suffer from social comparison, from feeling sad about the fact that they have fewer social opportunities or friends than others, and from feeling that others have better or happier lives. This could lead to serious depression, as may have happened for Madison Holleran (, a first-year student at the University of Pennsylvania who took her own life after telling friends how sad and overwhelmed she felt when she saw others’ gleaming Instagram pictures of all of the fun they were having at college.

Third, regardless of social status, online lurking could be stressful because the social media feed essentially serves as a scorecard for popularity. Almost 80% of our 13-year-olds agreed that you can tell how popular a peer is by looking at his or her social media profile, and about the same number indicated that their social media profiles accurately portrayed their own popularity.

Although the results of the study suggest that parents would be wise to monitor social media, it may be difficult for even the most vigilant parents to detect the content that some adolescents find the most hurtful.

What all youth lose when they spend hours lurking online is time to think, daydream, problem solve, read, converse with others, do homework, enjoy the beauty of nature, or engage in physical activity. For others, the price is far greater. Constantly lurking online may generate stress and sadness for vulnerable youth because it exposes them to the pain of social exclusion, the feeling that everyone else is having a wonderful time and a perfect life, and a set of numbers showing where they stand in the social order. Being 13 just got a lot more complicated.

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