The Internet Is Causing The Death Of The Preteen Stage

There are no longer tween-exclusive spaces on the internet (or in real life), and more preteens are consuming what was once reserved for adults.

By Nicole Dominique4 min read
Pexels/Polina Tankilevitch

When I was younger, the preteen stage was still a distinct phase of life. At 12, I wasn't entirely disconnected from social media, but I mostly frequented websites designated for minors: Club Penguin, Wizard101, Hello Kitty Online, etc. I watched funny YouTube skits from creators that mostly kept it PG-13. I was acne-ridden, wore tees and capris, had no purse yet, and my only form of "skincare" was the Saint Ives face scrub from Walmart.

In those days, my friends and I weren't influenced by adult trends the way minors are today. We would stay out in the sun with­out fear of aging. The concept of sun damage, lines, and wrinkles was a "problem" reserved for the grown-ups, not us. Our go-to was the little run-down mall 15 minutes from our town. $15 was enough for Claire's, and the world wasn't a scary place yet. We embodied your typical and innocent preteen girls.

Today – thanks to social media and smartphones – 11 year olds are skipping the tween stage, buying Drunk Elephant products at Sephora, and adopting "anti-aging" routines and other preventative measures. Some of them are already making their own makeup tutorials or Get-Ready-With-Mes – and getting paid for it. Tweens are also increasingly immersing the­mselves in "adult" conversations on social media platforms, joining in on debates (political or otherwise) with adults sometimes more than twice their age. 

Tweens Struggle for Social Spaces

The tween stage is disappearing before our eyes as the line between adulthood and adolescence blurs. The reason could, in part, be due to the massive lack of "third places" in America. Coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, the term describes public spaces outside the home and work meant for socializing and community. Kids still have parks and playgrounds, and teens have coffee shops, restaurants, and stores. But for preteens, these spaces are becoming scarce and incredibly expensive. As we've witnessed in Stranger Things, bowling alleys, arcades, skating rinks, and malls were where tweens would typically hang out. But many of them have closed down, or, thanks to inflation, cost way too much.

There's a lack of media focusing on the preteen stage as well. In the 1990s, 2000s, and early 2010s, for example, films like The Sandlot or Now and Then contained elements that were too mature for young kids but too childish for older audiences, falling perfectly into the tween demographic.

And we know that social media platforms don't have spaces for tweens, either. This means that 12-year-old Elizabeth can come across TikToks on tretinoin, taking bee pollen to increase her breast size, how to lose weight quickly, pro-sex work videos, or "informational" trans videos that might lead her to consider hormone therapy – all kinds of information she wouldn't have been exposed to if she weren't born in the digital era. Little Elizabeth shouldn't worry about any of these things. Everything about her is still developing; she's young and impressionable and will be easily influenced.

The Grown-Ups Were Right – It’s That Dang Phone

Minors being on the internet isn’t new, but their exposure to adult-oriented content and influences has intensified at an alarming rate. In 2010, the number of American teens on social media was at 73%. Only eight years later, that number increased to 90%. 75% reported having at least one active social media profile, and 51% reported visiting a social media site daily. 

Minors are online for much longer. In 2022, a survey by Common Sense Media revealed a 17% increase in screen use among teens and tweens from 2019 to 2021, surpassing previous years' growth rates. Tweens (ages 8 to 12) average five hours and 33 minutes of daily screen time, up from four hours and 44 minutes. Meanwhile, teens (ages 13 to 18) increased to eight hours and 39 minutes from seven to 22 minutes. 

The percentage of American teens consuming media from adults continues to skyrocket, and minors’ ideologies and behaviors are being shaped by older influencers. More tweens are also creating videos and facing the repercussions of being a young content creator. "Being exposed to social media at such a young and impressionable age can seriously impact children's mental health," explains INHOPE, an organization that has written about the dangers of being a kidfluencer. "Dealing with the pressures of being a role model for a big audience and being exposed to potential negative comments can heavily affect children's self-image and self-esteem and lead to issues such as disordered eating or body dysmorphia."

What’s concerning is that minors aren’t just skipping their childhood – their brain development is altered, and they’re also becoming more depressed. Research by JAMA Pediatrics revealed that children who regularly engage with social media exhibit alterations in brain regions responsible for social rewards and punishments, suggesting frequent use can lead to addictive behaviors, which exacerbate symptoms of depression and dysregulate dopamine pathways.

The numbers and the studies don't lie: Gen Z and Gen Alpha are drowning in a sea of digital stimuli like never before, and some of us, like me, are desperately trying to get our pre-internet brains back. We’re buying flip phones or digital cameras and setting reading goals for ourselves so we’re not just consuming text on a screen. Some of my friends have deleted Instagram, X, and TikTok. So many of us are trying to break free from the internet, badly wanting to reclaim our minds, our attention. It seems almost impossible. 

But I fear what I grew up with is not as bad as Gen Alpha's situation. I at least had a chance to experience life without smartphones for a little bit. Meanwhile, Gen A is growing up watching CoComelon on their iPad – if they’re unlucky and born into an influencer or phone-addicted family, they’re exploited for views. By the time they’re tweens, their dopamine pathways would have already been screwed, falling into a scrolling addiction.

And they'll continue to overexpose themselves to adults’ lives on TikTok and X. The problem is that the adulthood they’re witnessing online isn't about the triumphs or beauty of aging or anything that would add value to their adolescence. Instead, it’s saturated with themes of performative social justice, hypersexuality, overconsumption, and hostility toward differing viewpoints. What preteens are missing out on today is the beauty of young adulthood, and I’m not talking about the cartoons or the play makeup from the toy aisle at grocery stores. Childhood, in its essence, is about simply being – freely creating, exploring, learning, and experiencing life unburdened by duties, worries, or financial hardships. Yet now, tweens are inundated with the drama of politics and the relentless pursuit of material possessions, TikTok views, and followers. They’re losing the innocence and simplicity that should define their formative years.

Closing Thoughts

I admit, I struggle with concluding this article because I don't know if a solution exists yet. Perhaps this article itself is the first step toward addressing this issue. And if that's the case, I urge older generations to understand where we’re coming from. Freya India, a gifted writer, recently penned a piece titled "A Time We Never Knew" on After Babel. I highly recommend giving it a read. In her final thoughts of the essay, she asks readers to show more kindness toward Gen Z: “Next time you cringe at Gen Z for not coping, for not feeling cut out for this world, remember how painful it is to think that the good times are over. Then imagine how much more painful it would be to realize you never knew them.”

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