Today’s technologically connected world has enabled excellent progress in communication, information sharing, a platform for sharing one’s creativity and a platform for entertainment. The rapid rise in the number of users and amount of usage of social media platforms has opened up avenues for more opportunities for communication and connection with people having similar interests and ideas. Social media is an integral part of our world and is especially prominent in youth as a platform for social interactions.
Along with the benefits of social media, we must also be aware of the potential risks that accompany this technology, as we should for any new technology. There has been a fair amount of recent research regarding the impact that social media has on youth mental health. Given that the adolescent brain development continues well into the 20’s, both the opportunities and risks to teens using this technology are heightened (Johnson). The rapid social development during the teen years heightens their sensitivity to social information, increasing the drive for social rewards and concern over peer evaluation (Nesi).
A theme found in many studies is that people often make ‘social comparisons’ with posts made by others. In doing so, it is easy to overlook the fact that these posts typically contain carefully selected photos that portray the poster in an unusually positive light. From this, there is a tendency for negative social comparisons regarding the viewers own accomplishments, abilities or appearance. Self-esteem can be lowered by the user making unrealistic social comparisons or by not getting as many ‘likes’ or ‘positive comments’ as hoped from their own posts.
Awareness of the intentional design of social media sites to foster addiction needs to also be raised. One could argue that this is just good marketing, but we need to understand more about how we might be manipulated by the design of the social media platforms to encourage us to engage more frequently and for longer periods of time. A few of the techniques include (Montag):
endless flow of material - Youtube and Netflix default to autoplay so that an unselected video begins at the end of the selected one. Scrolling down the options continues in an endless loop
artificial intelligence uses the user’s selection of material to provide ‘related’ material the user might enjoy
These two features are designed to keep the viewer from switching to another platform as well as prolong the time spent on the platform. Users often ‘lose track of time’ due to these features.
social pressure - WhatsApp has a double checkmark feature that shows the sender that the message has been sent and when the message has been read. This adds pressure to the receiver to respond more quickly.
This encourages more engagement with the platform by having users sending messages back and forth more frequently.
default settings for many apps include: nudges, notifications, unsolicited advertisements, etc.
These defaults are meant to detract us from doing other tasks or prevent a loss of interest and a switch to another platform.
social reward - the ‘like’ feature on Facebook provides a social reward to posters, which encourages them to check the tally frequently and, hence, use the platform more frequently
Recent research in this area includes a number of mental health concerns associated with social media (Nesi):
being a victim of bullying by peers online
social exclusion and online conflict or drama
exposure to social media content depicting risky behaviors (eg. vaping, drinking, etc. or sometimes absurd fads such as ‘the fire challenge’, ‘planking’ in precarious locations, and the ‘tide pod challenge’) may cause youth to be more likely to engage in these behaviors themselves
content related to suicide and self-injury may also be readily available online, potentially increasing suicide risk among youth who are already vulnerable
higher levels of online social comparison are associated with depressive symptoms in youth
the issue of displacement: what other important activities are being replaced by time spent on social media?
the impact of social media on sleep quality remains a primary risk
There are also positive effects of social media on youth:
promotes individuals’ well-being when it is used to advance a sense of acceptance or belonging
opportunities to receive online social support for certain youth, particularly those who may not readily have access to communities of similar peers
online social support may play a protective role for youth with mental illness, including depression and suicidality
novel health care applications in screening, treatment, and prevention
At TIS we promote responsible use of technology, however, as a community, it is important that we come to a better understanding of the benefits and causes for concern with the proliferation of social media, largely accessed via smartphones. We need to work together to foster positive self-image and build self-esteem in our students by other means than reliance upon social media.
One step toward managing some of the negative effects of social media is the upcoming implementation of a phone policy where mobile phones are kept in students’ lockers unless used under the supervision of a teacher for educational purposes. We have chosen to implement this policy in the best interests of students’ learning and will continue to promote how to use social media productively outside of school hours. With this policy, the potential for distraction due to sending and receiving messages during lessons will be minimized. Students will be encouraged to build a stronger sense of community via face-to-face interactions with their peers. Our Teacher Advisor sessions will include building awareness of the risks of social media and ways to support positive use of these technologies.
In speaking with students, many have admitted that they have a fear of missing out (FOMO) and frequent checking of their social media threads is their coping mechanism for this fear. This fear is one that we should address in the interests of having a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Having a focus on the present moment and avoiding multitasking are some strategies for overcoming this fear.
The helpguide.org website offers suggestions for overcoming unhealthy reliance upon our smartphones (Robinson):
Recognize the triggers that make you reach for your phone. The trigger may be due to loneliness, boredom, or even depression, stress or anxiety. Finding healthier ways of managing our moods, such as practicising relaxation techniques may be helpful.
Turn off your phone at certain times of the day, such as when you’re in a meeting, at the gym, having dinner, or playing with your kids.
Don’t bring your phone or tablet to bed. The blue light emitted by the screens can disrupt your sleep if used within two hours of bedtime.
Replace your smartphone use with healthier activities.
Remove social media apps from your phone so you can only check your social media platforms from your computer.
Limit checks. If you compulsively check your phone every few minutes, wean yourself off by limiting your checks to once every 15 minutes. Then once every 30 minutes, then once an hour.
Curb your fear of missing out. Accept that by limiting your smartphone use, you’re likely going to miss out on certain invitations, breaking news, or new gossip.
The University of Nevada, Reno offers some suggestions for parents to support positive use of social media:
Keep Tabs on How Your Children Feel When Using Social Media
It usually isn’t necessary for parents and guardians to track everything their adolescent and teenage children do on social media and elsewhere online. However, parents must watch for signs that their children’s use of social media is having negative effects on their mental health.
Monitor Children’s Social Messages to Ensure They Aren’t Harmful
It is recommended that parents point out to their children that any images, texts or other material they share with one person is potentially shared with the world — and once they hit the ‘send’ button, there is no way to bring it back or erase it.
Parents should instruct their children on how to apply the privacy protections in each social platform. But even the strictest privacy settings can’t protect against the negative impact of improper sharing on social media. Children must also be warned that adult predators of all types use these services in their attempts to attract and exploit children.
Set and Enforce Guidelines for Children’s Social Media Use
The best way to ensure children understand the rights and wrongs of social media use is to create a family social media plan. The plan will match the unique characteristics of the family, and it will state clearly what is appropriate use of social media and what is inappropriate use. By focusing on the positive influence social media can have for all family members, parents can share the benefits of technology while balancing the advantages of engaging in non-technology activities that are far from wireless hot spots.
Be a Stellar Example of Appropriate Social Media Use
Any parent knows that children adopt many of the behaviors they see in their parents. The success of a family social media plan depends on the parents abiding by the rules as much as their children. To ensure parents are reaping the rewards of social media and avoiding the pitfalls, they must educate themselves about all aspects of these services.
The best way for parents to enforce rules about limiting screen time is by joining their children in activities in the physical world. Rather than simply turning off their children’s screen and going right back to their own, parents should take the opportunity to spend more face-to-face time with their children.
As a community, we must work together to provide support for children to navigate the ever-changing digital landscape. Awareness of the risks is the first step. Educating students on using these technologies in a balanced, positive and productive way must follow.
For additional reading on this topic, visit: https://bit.ly/3fhkq5Y
“Impact of Social Media on Youth Mental Health.” University of Nevada, Reno, 30 Dec. 2019, onlinedegrees.unr.edu/online-master-of-public-health/impact-of-social-media-on-youth-mental-health/.
Johnson, Sara B et al. “Adolescent maturity and the brain: the promise and pitfalls of neuroscience research in adolescent health policy.” The Journal of adolescent health : official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine vol. 45,3 (2009): 216-21. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.05.016
Montag, Christian et al. “Addictive Features of Social Media/Messenger Platforms and Freemium Games against the Background of Psychological and Economic Theories.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 16,14 2612. 23 Jul. 2019, doi:10.3390/ijerph16142612
Nesi, Jacqueline. “The Impact of Social Media on Youth Mental Health: Challenges and Opportunities”. North Carolina Medical Journal (2020). 81. 116-121. 10.18043/ncm.81.2.116.
Robinson, Lawrence, et al. “Smartphone Addiction.” HelpGuide.org, HelpGuide, Sept. 2020, www.helpguide.org/articles/addictions/smartphone-addiction.htm.