Social Media- For Better or for Worse

Social media follows us everywhere!! I walk into a restaurant and see a family of five sitting in a booth, all fully engaged with their phone or tablet. I go to the grocery store and see cart after cart of kids watching their parent’s phone as they shop.  I go to the gym and people are taking selfies and ‘checking in’ on Facebook (I know, I know- Facebook is old news). Walk into a room of teenagers and you will inevitably find them glued to the ringing, blinking and buzzing of their handheld screens. Literally, everywhere I go I find myself and others with a phone attached to our hand. And if it’s not our phone- our tablet, computer or smart watch will be there with us!We can’t deny the fact that social media has not only become a part of our lives, but our lives seem to revolve around it.This is especially true for the younger generations. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 75% of youth ages 13-21 have their own smart phone. 80% of youth have profiles on popular social media sites such as Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Tumblr, TikTok or WhatsApp. 22% of adolescents log on to social media more then 10 times per day and more than half of youth log on more than once per day. With this ongoing increase in internet use, it is a fair conclusion that a large part of our kids social and emotional development is now occurring online.

 Social media offers an instant portal for entertainment, communication and expression. But as with anything good, it comes with a price. Young people are impressionable, eager for acceptance, and relatively inexperienced, which can cloud judgment and lead to some harmful long-term consequences. It is important for caregivers to be informed of both the benefits and consequences of social media in order to be better equipped to participate in their children’s online lives. So, let’s take a look at both sides of the equation. 

 Benefits

Socialization.Social media allows adolescents to accomplish online, many of the behaviors that are important to them off line: connecting with friends or family, meeting new friends and sharing ideas. 

Connection. According to research conducted by the Pew Research Center, social media helps teens establish and maintain relationships. Teens can connect with peers who have similar interests or talents and stay connected to friends and family who live far away.  

Creativity.Sites like TikTok and YouTube provide a platform for teens to enhance their artistic, musical or technological creativity. 

Self-Expression. The creation of blogs, podcasts and community forums give adolescents the opportunity to develop and express opinions and grow ideas. 

Educational Opportunities.Middle and high school students are using social media sites like Google+ Hangouts to connect with one another on homework, group projects or to form study groups. Additionally, some schools have utilized blogs as effective teaching tools in English and writing. 

Access to Information. With just a click of the mouse or a tap on the screen, adolescents have access to information about a variety of health-related topics including nutrition, sexual health, stress reduction and self-care. The anonymity of the internet may increase teens’ comfort in seeking information about topics that they may be uncomfortable discussing in person. 

 Negative Consequences: 

Cyberbullying.Name calling and spreading rumors have long been a challenging aspect of adolescent life. But the proliferation of social media has transformed where, when and how bullying takes place. According the American Academy of Pediatrics cyberbullying is among the most common online risk for youth. A survey by Pew Research Center survey found that 59% of youth have experienced some form online harassment. 

Focusing on ‘Likes’.For every thumbs up or heart we get a little psychological high through a shot of dopamine (our “feel good” hormone). The more ‘likes’ the more shots. The more shots we have, the more shots we want. And we’re in a loop. Research on the effects of social media ‘likes’ on a teenagers brain liken it to winning money or eating chocolate. 

False sense of ‘Normal’.With social media, peers can curate their lives, and the resulting feeds read like highlight reels, showing only the greatest and most desirable moments while concealing hardships and the ordinary (sometimes mundane) experiences of everyday life. It looks as though everyone is having the best day, every day. Adolescents’ vulnerability and their desire for acceptance makes them especially susceptible to the effects of the unrealistic expectations put forth by their Instagram feed. 

Digital Footprint.What goes online, stays online. Every picture sent, every message posted, every video ‘liked’ leaves behind an ongoing record of online behavior. This can have emotional and legal consequences for youth who lack awareness of privacy issues. Behaviors such as sexting, posting inappropriate messages or engaging in online harassment can jeopardize a teens reputation, friendships, college acceptance and future jobs.

Less Face Time.Social media is an incomplete medium for human interaction. On social media you can’t hug someone, give a high five, make eye contact or give a nod of connection. Conversations on social media are devoid of facial cues and other forms of nonverbal communication which provides external context. Being able to read social cues and body language is a major component in social communication which may be compromised by overuse of social media. 

Mental Health Issues. “Facebook depression” is a concern resulting from adolescents use of social media. A report by the American Academy of Pediatrics defines Facebook depression as “depression that develops when youth spend time on social media sites and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression due to the intensity of the online world.” Anxiety, low self-esteem, and compulsive internet use have also been linked to adolescent social media use. An increase in the number of platforms and/or time spent on social media is correlated with a decrease in mental health. 

So, what now? There’s a happy medium in here somewhere. The key to helping teens learn to balance online life with offline life is to keep the lines of communication open and keep talking (if they won’t listen…text or DM (direct message) them.) Create a safe space for your child to discuss their own social media experiences and become an active participant in their online lives. Educate your child about the potential consequences of risky online behavior and develop an agreed upon plan for social media use. Websites, such aswww.healthychildren.org, provide resourceful templates for families to develop a media plan. It is also important to walk the walk. Disconnect. Put your phone down. Log off of your computer. Show your teen/tween that there is a whole world out there that doesn’t require a username and password.

Debi Mattocks