Sisters Talking On…Social media impact on Mental Health of Young People

Point for Discussion:

Social media (or anti-social media) is heavily used by young people, and has become very important to their individual self-esteem.  Young people, still developing their own personalities, can be especially vulnerable to the comments of others while not possessing the skills to handle what they may read about themselves.  This has led to low self-esteem and depression among young people leading them to act out in inappropriate ways, harming themselves and/or others.

Points of View:

(Lynn)

Life is hard these days.  As hard as we thought it was when we were kids, it is far more complicated now.  We had friends we saw at school, we talked on the phone at night, we participated in activities face-to-face with our friends. Just like today, we had bullies in school that continually harassed others and/or started fights.  But when we went home at night, we returned to our families.  Social interactions were always face-to-face.

Fast forward 20 years, social media was in its infancy.  My Space was one of the first social media sites.  Young people signed up in droves to share their lives with friends.  Fast forward another 15 years.  MySpace has been replaced with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.  Modern social interaction doesn’t need to be social anymore, and used inappropriately, can cause quite a bit of harm.

Social media has become very important to many people.  It can be used in both positive and negative ways.  I use social media to participate in groups with like-minded people who work together to help each other develop skills and provide feedback.  But, I am an adult, and I am fully aware that there will always be haters out there working to tear others down.

For young people, the risk is enormous.  They are impressionable and take all comments to heart.  They don’t always have enough life experience to differentiate between things they should worry about and things they can disregard.  We have seen the outcomes of this play out at many schools throughout the country over the past 20 years.

For young people today, the feedback component of their postings is the most important part of their media presence.  Success is measured in Likes and Retweets.  The more the better.  This has led many young people to post inappropriate photos or comments without understanding the long term consequences of their actions.  These posts will follow them through life, potentially impacting their ability to get certain jobs.

There are other unintended consequences though.  Cruel comments, taunting and cyber bullying have driven many young people to depression or worse.  We’ve all had to deal with cruel comments and bullying as we made our way through school.  We could, however, look the bully in the eye.  And fight back face-to-face. It is much harder to be cruel when you are looking someone straight in the eye.

Now we can hide anonymously behind a computer screen and be even more cruel.  For the objects of all of this negative attention, this can be overwhelming.  At some point, our society needs to step up and stop this behavior.  I would like to believe that much of this is just kids being kids.  But I know better.  These kids are likely modeling the behavior they see at home.  Clearly they see it on the news everyday as our President bullies anyone he doesn’t like or agree with through tweets.

While we wait for the First Lady to begin her anti bullying campaign (15 months in and we’re still waiting for her to stop the biggest cyber bully), we can do a few things.

  • To start with, we need to provide a better example for our children to follow. When did it become acceptable for so many to be so mean?  Are we really so shallow that if someone is not like us, they become worthy of abuse?  We need to model more compassionate behavior.
  • We need to foster open communication with our kids. Teenagers are notoriously secretive.  We’ve all been there and have kept secrets from our parents.  And it’s even harder to talk to teens if they don’t believe they are living up to our expectations of them.  Add to that, bullying at school or through social media, and it can cause a lot of emotional pain.  Communication and support can go a long way in helping teens to get past a lot of the pain.
  • If our kids won’t talk to us, then we need to make sure that there are independent resources available for them. It is critical that teens have non-judgmental voices in their lives to help them navigate through all of the negativity. To feel alone and helpless can make life far too challenging.  Resources exist, but are not as readily available as they need to be.  It takes too long to get an appointment with a therapist or psychiatrist when the situation could turn bad very quickly.  Incentives should be provided to encourage professionals to specialize in adolescent programs.

Most importantly, we must recognize ANY change we see in behavior or mood.  Parents, teachers and counselors need to pay close attention to these changes and talk to each other when they see something that seems out of character, and then do something about it.  After all, it takes a village.

(Laurie)

I agree with Lynn that mental health among young people is a critical issue, and that social media has dramatically changed how young people (and everyone else) interact and influence/are influenced by others.   I see social media as a social step-change, and it’s more important than ever to step back and reassess its increasing role in young people’s lives.  While social media makes it easy to stay up-to-date with friends and family, it’s also very easy for someone to hide behind an email or a post, and it’s easy to create another persona so nobody knows it is you.

The following news stories are just two examples of the risks of social media among young people that caught my attention:

  1. Facebook is testing a “kid” version

The Washington Times reported in January that Facebook has recently launched an experimental version of the Facebook app targeting kids 13 years and younger.   We should worry about this, especially given the recent data access issue with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/jan/30/child-experts-just-say-no-to-facebooks-kids-app/

  1. Kids are so concerned about how many “likes” they get, that it interferes in the classroom

A documentary series on A&E, called “Undercover High,” puts adults, acting as students, into the classroom of a Kanas high school, demonstrating the impact of social media on teens’ lives.

http://www.businessinsider.com/undercover-high-teenagers-lives-2018-2/#social-media-has-changed-the-game-1

Social media represents the good and the bad of technology, with significant implications for young people:

The GOOD can be very good – social media helps young people share photos of trips or special events with the whole family or group of friends at the same time, have group conversations, express love or concern, schedule time with friends, network, and so many more productive and convenient aspects.

The BAD can be very bad – social media impact can range from cyber bullying to cyber stalking to adults misleading children for harm.  It is also used as a way for young people to seek popularity and infamy, which could artificially inflate feelings of superiority vs. others.  Is social media, not only impacting self-esteem of young people, but also contributing to the “next generation” of “gangs”?

Young people are not aware of the longer-term implications of their social media presence.  It can expose themselves to harm, and for the future, affect job prospects, because they will be judged by what they do or say today.

Somewhere in the middle of good vs. bad of social media is that some young people may become tougher and more resilient (e.g., not pay attention to comments of others).  They may also hear about situations, tell someone, and be able to prevent harm from being done to others.

There are ways to curb social media to lessen the negative impact on kids:

  • Develop and implement an app that shuts down access to social media during school hours. This can’t be phone-by-phone.  It must be school-wide.
  • Create an app that enables (and encourages) young people to report activity that they think may be or become harmful – allowing them to remain anonymous.
  • Create closed social groups that enable friends to be connected with each other, but it’s private, and not something others have access to.
    • There could also be a family version with a narrow focus that ensures kids can contact their parents in an emergency, or to let them know where they are, but that’s it.

Social media was an explosive development that now needs some reigning in.  Let’s make this a priority for the physical and mental well-being of young people.

Some kids will always be mean and bully others, as much as we wish this weren’t true, but we don’t have to let social media / technology be a tool to make this easy and worse than ever before.

Our Question for you:

How do you think social media could be changed to improve the life of young people? What else can we do to help our young people navigate through their formative years successfully?

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