This post contains excerpts from my newly released book, Digital and Media Literacy in the Age of the Internet: Practical Classroom Applications, which is now available on Amazon.

Social Media and Mental Health

A 2017 Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) social media study of 1500 young people in the UK from ages 14 to 24 years old found that Instagram, out of all of the social media apps, had the most negative impact on young people’s mental health. Due to the highly stylized and edited content, teens reported that it had a negative effect on body image. The ability to follow others’ experiences in real time also led to high levels of “Fear of Missing Out” or FOMO as young people worried that if they didn’t keep scrolling, they would miss something important. This, obviously, also had a negative effect on sleep (which was common across all platforms).  

The 2018 movie 8th Grade is a great look at how teens use social media to escape their insecurities and the pressure that they feel when using these platforms as well as the power these platforms give them to create and re-create their own identities. In the movie, a young girl, Kayla, who is an introvert and quiet at school, has a YouTube channel where she is bubbly and talkative and gives advice. Her character struggles with who she is and who she wants to be and how her offline and online personalities reflect different parts of her identity. 

These online communities created through social media are no different than peer groups older people engaged in pre-social media and pre-Internet. We can remember a time when we found out that we had missed a party or a get together because we hadn’t been invited and how that felt. Now imagine that you could watch that party or get together unfolding in real time and even see who was there.  

Feelings of anxiety and depression aren’t just linked to specific apps. Another 2017 study found that “48 percent of teens who spend five hours per day on an electronic device have at least one suicide risk factor, compared to 33 percent of teens who spend two hours a day on an electronic device.” While it’s not clear if those with mental health issues tend to spend more time on their devices or if more time on devices triggers more mental health issues, it is clear that there is a link between screen time and mental health.  

Young people are highly social. They crave peer interactions and approval. These online communities like TikTok, SnapChat, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook are where they connect with each other. If that is where their friends are, it is no wonder that they want to spend time there. However, there seems to be a happy medium (no pun intended) between screen-based and non-screen-based interactions and the more time they spend looking at a screen, the higher levels of anxiety and depression the teens in the study reported. 

The Role of Social Media Companies

Another important aspect of the conversation around kids’ use of social media are the platforms and companies themselves. These apps are designed to be addicting. They are designed to keep users on them. Former Google engineer Tristan Harris explains that these apps are designed like slot machines, sending endorphins to our brains with each refresh of the app as we wonder “what will I get?”  

Many social media apps are designed for the user to scroll mindlessly through content. Others, like SnapChat, use this psychology to keep people “hooked.” SnapChat users can create “streaks” with other users. The app tracks “snaps” sent between the users and puts a little fire symbol up along with a number indicating that the two users have continually sent snaps to each other every day for as long as the number states. This is an obvious way to keep users coming back to the app and using it.  

This is also one reason that the RSPH study suggests that apps have built in alerts when a user has spent a lot of time on the app (a “heavy usage warning”).  This warning could prove helpful, especially for young brains since, as a 2011 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics explains, “because of their limited capacity for self-regulation and susceptibility to peer pressure, children and adolescents are at some risk as they navigate and experiment with social media.”

Cyberbullying

No conversation about social media would be complete without discussing the risk of cyberbullying that occurs on these platforms. Like the playgrounds of the past, online spaces are prone to typical childhood behaviors like teasing, social ostracizing, and harassment. Sadly, many of these behaviors are conducted by adults, not just young people. The hardest part about these incidences of bullying is that they follow the victim home. Cruel words, gossip, and hateful posts are carried around in their pocket at an arm’s reach.  

It is important to teach young people to use the tools available within the platforms they use to address cyberbullying. Blocking and reporting is an easy first step, though, if the posts are really egregious or threatening or have continued repeatedly for days or weeks, the first step should be to screenshot the messages. These screenshots are easy evidence of what was said in case the bully takes down or removes his or her posts. It is important, when using any social media in the classroom to lay down the expectations around decorum and to have thought through clear consequences when that decorum is broken. Students should also consider what they are posting and who might see it.

The Good Side of Social Media 

Despite all the negativity that we often hear around social media, it is not all bad. Like anything, including TV or laptops or even sugary drinks and alcohol, if we know that something has the potential to hurt us or damage our health, we must do it in moderation. For all the judging that we adults do around young people’s use of social media, we should think about the last time Netflix asked us “are you still watching…” as we binge-watched our favorite show. Adults are also not immune to the research findings, even if their brains are slightly more formed than teens and tweens.  

The same RSPH study showed that YouTube actually had a positive effect on community building and awareness. Users felt more connected to others and felt more connected to quality health-related information. Even Instagram showed a positive effect on self-expression as did nearly all of the social media sites studied.

This positive influence can be seen in the “It Gets Better Project” started by Dan Savage and his partner, Terry Miller. The campaign started with a simple video of the two sharing their experiences as gay men and telling young LGBT people that “it gets better.” As of this writing, there are over 60,000 people who have shared their “it gets better” stories. Many of these stories can be viewed on the project’s YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/itgetsbetterproject.  

After the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, some of the Parkland students began to use social media to speak out about the tragedy and policies that they believe made the tragedy possible. These students had used Twitter for sharing personal quips and communicating with friends, but as their accounts gained popularity due to their direct challenges to powerful people like President Trump or Senator Marco Rubio on the platform, they had to learn how to leverage their newfound power. As student Delaney Tarr stated in a New York Times article after the shooting, “The fact is that I have to represent our movement. It’s not just me tweeting whatever I want to tweet about. It has to be drawn back to who I am to the media, to who I am to the country.” Social media not only gave these students a voice, but taught them deep lessons about messaging, branding, and self-awareness. 

Social media also has the potential to make it easier for introverts, people who may not feel comfortable speaking up in a large group or refrain from sharing ideas with others, to connect with people in a safe and unintimidating way. It also allows people to find and make connections with those who share their interests when they don’t live in an area or town or attend a school with anyone who shares their interests. And while social media gets a bad rap in many studies for increasing feelings of loneliness, it has the potential to alleviate loneliness, especially when those digital connections cross into the “real world.” In addition, for people with disabilities, social media can be a great equalizer, allowing for them to interact with online communities without stigma.  

Like any communication tool, social media has its both dark and bright side. It is up to adults to model good communication skills, teach young people about how the social media apps they use work and how they can affect their mental health, and to guide students through navigating this online world the same way we guide them offline. Social media is not going away, and those who can manage and leverage it successfully have the potential to build strong relationships and impact society.

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