It’s not easy to be a teenager without social media. These families are navigating the adolescence without social media

WESTPORT (Connecticut): Kate Bulkeley succeeded in her first attempt to avoid social media during high school. She saw the rewards pile up. She was getting great grades. She read a lot of books. Around the dinner table, there were lively discussions. On weekends, everyone gathered to watch movies.

As sophomore year began, unexpected problems began to surface. She missed the student government meeting that was arranged via Snapchat. She has scheduling issues because her Model UN team also communicates via social media. Instagram is used by the Bible Study Club at her Connecticut high-school to communicate with its members.

Gabriela Durham is a Brooklyn high school senior who says that navigating highschool without social media made her the person she is today. She’s a straight-A, focused student who has a long list of college acceptances. She is also a dancer with Broadway experience. In some ways, not having social media made her feel like an “outsider”. It used to be painful, but now it’s a badge.

Some parents try to restrict or ban social media for their children, as the negative effects of social media are well-documented. Some parents are attempting to raise their children with blanket bans or restrictions on social media.

It is difficult to be a teen today without social media. Those who are trying to avoid social media while their peers are engrossed in it can find the journey challenging, isolating, and sometimes liberating. It can be life-changing.

This is the story of two families and their struggles to navigate high school. This is about what kids do after midnight when they are unable to extend their Snapstreaks, shut their bedroom door or scroll through TikTok. Families talk about other things when they are not fighting over screen time. The social implications are also persistent.

Both families’ journeys show the benefits and pitfalls that come with trying to avoid social networking in a world where it is so prevalent.


A fundamental change

Children and phones are not a new concern. Experts are increasingly aware that the Covid-19 epidemic fundamentally altered adolescence. The pandemic influenced the way American youth used social media. As they struggled to cope with their isolation and excessive online time, the pandemic shaped a larger place for it in their lives.

Social media is no longer a means to communicate with friends or to distract them. It has evolved into a place and community where almost all US teens belong. According to Pew Research Center, up to 95% teenagers use social media. More than one third of them say that they are “almost always” on it.

Michael Rich, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and director of the Digital Wellness Lab, a nonprofit organization at Boston Children’s Hospital, says that teenagers are more connected than ever to a world that is both digital and non-digital.

Rich, the Clinic for Interactive Media & Internet Disorders’ director, says that social media is the new air the kids breathe.

Social media, for better or worse has become the main platform of socialization. Many kids use social media to form their identities, seek advice, relax and relieve stress. It affects how kids talk and dress. Social media, in this age of parental control and location tracking apps, is where the younger generation finds freedom.

The more time young people spend online, and the greater the likelihood of developing mental health issues.

According to U.S. studies, kids who spend more than three hours per day on social media are at double the risk for depression and anxiety. Vivek Murthy is the Surgeon General of India. He issued a public warning about social media risks to children last spring.

Elena Romero, Gabriela’s mom and the Bulkeleys were both concerned about these issues. Both parents set up strict rules for their children when they were still young and in elementary school. The girls waited until the middle school years to give their kids phones and social media was not allowed until they were 18. The girls and their younger brothers were educated on the effects of social media, online privacy issues, the dangers of posting pictures or comments which can come back to haunt them.

There are no screen time fights in the two households that do not use social media. Both parents and children agree that it’s not easy.


It’s impossible to avoid when it’s everywhere.

Gabriela’s phone is not in her pocket when she is at school, the subway, or dancing classes around New York City.

You’ve missed out on a lot of things by not having it. Everyone else gets the same jokes and practices the same TikTok moves, but not you. Gabriela felt isolated when she was younger; sometimes, it still feels that way. She now sees the freedom she feels by not using social media.

She says that “from my outsider’s perspective,” it seems as though many kids are using social media to promote an illusion. It’s sad. Social media tells them what they should do and look like. “It’s reached a point now where everyone wants the same look instead of being their own.”

She feels fortunate to have been removed from the friend drama and lack of humility, honesty and kindness on social media.

Gabriela is majoring in dance at the Brooklyn High School of the Arts. She dances seven days a weeks outside of the school. The senior year was particularly intense with applications for college and scholarships capped off by the unexpected highlight of performing at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre as part of an annual showcase of high-school musicals.

Gabriela’s diverging paths with her peers are on full display after a recent Saturday dance class held in the Bronx basement of a church. The other dancers aged 11-16 sit cross-legged across the linoleum flooring and talk about social media.

Arielle Williams, 15, says she is addicted to TikTok and stays up late to scroll through it. “When I start to feel tired, I tell myself, One more video. And then, I keep telling myself, One more video. And I sometimes stay up until 5am.”

Other dancers gasp. The other dancers gasp.

“OH. “OH. “My total last week was 68, including 21 hours spent on TikTok.”

Gabriela is silently listening to the conversation from the sidelines. On the No. On the No. 2 subway to Brooklyn she shares her thoughts. “Those screen-time hours, it’s insane.”

Gabriela’s phone is in her hand as the train thunders through the tunnels of the Manhattan subway system from elevated tracks in Bronx. She uses her phone to text with friends, to listen to music and to consult a subway app that counts down the stops until she reaches Brooklyn. Romero has strategically limited her phone use to idle times.

Romero, a mother of three children living in a Bushwick walk-up with a three-bedroom apartment, says that the schedules for her kids will leave you spinning. On schooldays, they are up by 5.30am to get out the door at 7am. Romero takes the girls from Brooklyn to the three schools they attend, and then she rides the subway up to Manhattan where she teaches mass communication at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Grace, an 11-year-old Girl Scout, is active in the sixth grade. Gionna, a 13 year old, sings and participates on debate team. She also has daily rehearsals at her middle school for a theater production.

Gabriela says, “I am so busy that my only free time is sleeping.” She tries to get to bed by 10.30pm.

Romero’s daughters were not given phones until they reached middle school in New York City. She then began taking the public transport home by herself. Gabriela sat her daughters down years ago to watch The Social Dilemma. She says the documentary made her realize how tech companies manipulate users.

The rules of her mom are simple: no social media on mobile phones before the age of 18. They can use YouTube but cannot upload videos. Romero does not restrict screen time or phone use in bedrooms.

Romero: “It is a struggle. Don’t misunderstand me.” The two younger girls “slipped” last year. The girls secretly downloaded TikTok and used it for a couple of weeks before being caught.

Romero considers whether or not to relax her rule in order to accommodate Gionna. Gionna is an avid reader who wants become a Young Adult Bookstagrammer – a reviewer of books on Instagram. Gionna is aspiring to become a writer and she loves that book reviewers receive free books.

Her mother is in a state of confusion. Romero was most concerned about social media in middle school. This is a crucial age when kids form their identities. She believes in using social media as a way to pursue your passions.

She tells her daughters, “When you get older, you’ll see that Mom wasn’t as crazy as you first thought.”


Struggling to not miss out

The Bulkeleys in the Connecticut suburb of Westport have also faced similar questions regarding their rule-bending. They were not surprised by the outcome.

Kate was happy to be without social media. Her parents knew that she would eventually resist the ban due to peer pressure or a fear of missing something. The 15-year old, however, sees the ban as a waste. She describes herself academically, as introverted and focused in building extracurricular activities.

She needed Instagram.

Kate, sitting with her family in their two-story living room, says: “I needed to be co president of my Bible Study Club.”

Kate told her parents as her sophomore year began that she was thrilled to be leading clubs, but she needed social media in order to do her work. The parents agreed to allow her Instagram access for her activities after school, which they found frustrating and ironic. Kate Bulkeley’s mom, Steph Bulkeley says that the school was responsible for forcing them to change their rule.

Russ Bulkeley, Kate’s father, believes that schools are talking the talk when it comes to social media and screen time. Technology is becoming a part of school life. Kate’s high-school and Sutton, their 13-year old daughter’s middle-school have phone bans which are not enforced. Teachers may ask students to use their phones in class to photograph materials.

Bulkeleys don’t agree with this, but they feel powerless to do anything about it. The Bulkeleys, when their daughters were in elementary school and still had a lot of time before they could access social media or smartphones, were inspired by “Wait Until 8th”, urging parents to delay giving children smartphones until the 8th grade, or around age 13. Others say that waiting until age 16 is the best option. Some experts say that banning social media won’t work and kids should learn to adapt to the technology.

They finally gave in because they trusted Kate and because she was too busy to spend much time on social media.

Kate and Sutton finish their after-school activities, including theater and dance classes, at 8:30pm on most weeknights. After they get home and finish their homework, they try to go to bed at 11.

Kate spends on average two hours per week using her phone. According to a Gallup survey from 2023, over half of US teens spent an average of five minutes per day on social media. She uses her phone mostly to make calls, send texts, check grades, and take pictures. One of her parent’s rules is that she doesn’t share or post pictures. Other: No phones in bedrooms. All electronics must be kept on the ledge that separates the living room from your kitchen. On school nights, TVs are not allowed.

Kate rejected the offer from her parents to pay her to wait to use social networking. She is a little hesitant to use the apps. She has set daily time limits of six minutes to remind her not to dither on Instagram.

The app was useful at a Model UN Conference earlier this year, where students from all over the world exchanged contacts: “Nobody requested phone numbers.” Kate says, “You gave your Instagram.” She has decided to avoid Snapchat for fear of becoming addicted. She asked a student government friend to text any important messages sent via Snapchat.

Sutton is more affected by the lack of social media than her sister. The eighth-grader describes herself as social, but not popular.

There are a lot popular girls who do TikTok dancing. Sutton says that TikTok is what really determines your fame.

The kids in her class are “obsessed” with TikTok and post videos of themselves which look like carbon copies to her. They look and sound alike in crop tops, jeans, and TikTok-style dialect.

She sometimes feels left out, but she doesn’t need social media because one of her friends always sends her viral videos. She knows first-hand how social media can affect friendship groups. Two of my friends got into a fight. “One thought that the other had blocked her on Snapchat.”

These two families, and the entire nation, have a long road ahead of them before these bigger questions are answered. Schools are making an effort. Some schools have banned phones to ensure students are focused and socialising is done face-to-face. Teachers say it could also reduce teen anxiety and depression.

Sutton, who is 13 years old, can already understand this as she navigates the future. She has observed that social media has evolved in the last few years. It used to serve as a means for people to communicate, connect and get to know one another.

She says, “It’s all about bragging.” “People share pictures of their amazing trips. Or just looking good. It makes people feel bad.

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