With cell phones and widespread internet access, social media is now ubiquitous in teenage life. For the past five years, social media platforms (SMPs) have been ubiquitous ways for teens to interact with others.
According to a recent report by the Surgeon General, mental health problems among adolescents are getting worse. The rate of mental health problems among American teenagers has increased over the past decade. (1) Suicide rates, threats of school violence, and social pressures are all increasing for our teens. Teen ED admissions for suicide are on the rise.(2) Many factors produce depression in teens. An interesting correlate from a Mayo Clinic study showed that teens with greater emotional investment in social media had higher levels of anxiety and depression. Studies suggest that the amount of social media use by teens is linked to loneliness, self-harm, and feelings of inadequacy.(3)
Today’s teenagers have grown up as digital natives. With the proliferation of social media, young people have more and more opportunities to encounter problems. A Pew survey found that 97% of American teens use social media platforms, and about half are online almost all the time.(4) Teens are quickly learning about the risks of social media. The survey showed that many teens report experiencing negative behaviors online, including name-calling, cyberbullying, false rumours, unsolicited explicit images, harassment and physical threats. Participating in ubiquitous SMPs also exposes teens to harmful attitudes and mean or critical comments. This online social commentary can send some teens into a downward spiral.(5)
While many global factors interact to produce mental health issues, much attention is now focused on teens’ use of social media as a possible culprit. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, school disruptions and other social issues, it is important not to over-blame PMCs as the primary factor undermining adolescent mental health. Yet SMPs have not sufficiently reduced the risks for young users in balance with their feverish attempts to lure them to their platforms. Parental controls can help, but better parenting strategies are needed.
Why are SMPs considered a catalyst for adolescent dysfunction? Teenagers are very tuned into the opinions of their peers, and social media platforms allow for likes and comments. Teens are also prone to developing a “fear of missing out” (FOMO) that leads to compulsive checking of online accounts. SMPs therefore seem to amplify the pressure on some adolescents as a place of continuous search for social validation. It’s important for parents to talk with teens about the pros and cons of online interactions, how to defend themselves against negative people and messages, and how to enjoy activities that disconnect us from the online metaverse.
Parents can try using Parental Controls to limit their teens’ access to SMPs. But we know that the “forbidden fruit” can stimulate curiosity. Adults might be better served by talking with young people about what’s going on online and discussing some mutually agreeable rules. Talking about toxic influences and how to limit them is a good place to start.
We can all benefit by developing new digital social skills to promote more positive interactions on SMPs. Model the same behavior online as you would in person. SMPs are driven by ad revenue and will continue to use algorithms to promote the content that gets the most attention. Controversy and hyperbole generate the most views, and social media is a 24/7 echo chamber that amplifies inflammatory discourse. There are dangers lurking in the dark undercurrents of social media.
Yet SMPs also offer positive benefits. These platforms offer adolescents a place to express solidarity, individuality, influence, mutual support and shared identity. Adults need to find ways to help adolescent users experience the positive aspects of online interactions, while avoiding the risks.
We cannot blame technology for our social problems. These tools, like all others, can be used for good or for evil. Instead of waiting for PMS to protect us by removing content, it’s up to parents and educators to promote a new digital “netiquette” and consumer opinion. Let’s work on our social skills and healthy defenses to protect each other and our teens online.
Password: “Take the high road”.