I’m going to start today’s article with a challenge. Log into your Facebook account and look at your friends, focusing specifically on cousins and siblings. You’ve done that right. Now ask yourself, how many of those Facebook friends are under the age of 18? This is the age that a person can acquire an email address, a necessary requirement when opening a Facebook account? Again, ask how many of these Facebook friends had a Facebook account, and by association an email address, when they were under the age of 18?
I say 18 because when Facebook started, that was the minimum age that you needed to be open an account on the social network. Facebook has since relaxed this age to 13, but there is still an elephant in the room that needs to be addressed.
If we look at the way that social media is developing, where it is becoming more news and media content focused rather than a platform where you post a picture of your dinner and your cat, is our youth being opened up to a world where their innocence is being taken away from them prematurely?
I am not talking about sexual promiscuity here. The bottom line is that there is content on the internet that is just not fit for young children to see. And all you need is an angsty teenager who doesn’t care about anybody else except themselves to share the content that I am referring to with eyes that are not fit to see it.
This leads me to the focus of today’s post, is social media harming the minds of our youth?
No damage done here
There are obviously two different camps here. One camp that says that social media enriches the lives of our youth, and one that says it damages. Let’s present a case for both sides of the argument.
I recently read an article on khn.org which argues the enrichment case.
The article points out that the negative effects of social media on young people’s mental health are well-documented by researchers and the press.
However, the article adds that some academics and therapists are proposing a counterintuitive view; they have found that social media may also help improve mental health by boosting self-esteem and providing a source of emotional support. These benefits have attracted too little attention from journalists and parents, they say.
Yes, social media is contributing to a new era of adolescent (and adult) social stress, but when we accept that it is here to stay, we can also see it as a new opportunity for connection and mindfulness according to an online advice column published by the University of California-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
Speaking to khn.org, Amy Gonzales, an Assistant Professor who studies social media and health at Indiana University’s Media School said that we need to think about social media as not being absolutely good or bad. “We need to think about how to come up with appropriate uses of this stuff,” said Gonzales.
A safe harbour
Being a teenager is not easy. It is a time in a person’s life where they are faced with the increased pressures and responsibilities of becoming an adult while yearning for the carefree days of being a child. In many of these cases, teenagers look for a place of interaction where they will not be judged.
In research published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Gonzales found that college students who viewed their own Facebook profiles enjoyed a boost in self-esteem afterwards.
The khn article adds that by curating their online personas to reflect their best traits (choosing flattering pictures and sharing exciting experiences) users remember what they like best about themselves.
Matthew Oransky, an assistant professor of adolescent psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and a practising therapist, told khn that many of his patients find social connections online they could not find elsewhere. This is particularly true of marginalized teens, such as kids in foster homes and LGBT adolescents.
“I’ve seen some of the really big positives, which is that kids who are isolated can find a community,” Oransky told khn. “They’re often first able to come out to online friends.” In a 2013 survey, 50% of LGBT youth reported having at least one close friend they knew only from online interactions.
The dark side of the force
So, as we can see, there is a very strong argument for the advantages of social media being a force of good. However, there is a darker side to social media that we cannot ignore.
Bullying is a scourge to humanity which has been around since one person became physically, emotionally or mentally stronger than the person next to them. But while confronting and dealing with a bully is hard, yet possible, in person, it becomes an almost impossible task when it happens over social media.
An article on the telegraph.co.uk points out that there are children in the world who would be happy if social media networks did not exist. The article points out that schoolchildren would be happy if social media did not exist as more than half have experienced abuse or had their confidence knocked by websites, a study has found.
Social media detoxing
Speaking to the Telegraph, Charlotte Robertson, co-founder of Digital Awareness UK, which carried out the research, said that teenagers were following the example of celebrities who had made social media detox a “cool” thing to do, citing the Kardashians and Ed Sheeran as examples.
“Young people are starting to acknowledge that this isn’t helping and is starting to impact their health and well-being in ways that they hadn’t recognized before,” she said.
The article adds that a total of 57% of youth said they had received abusive comments online, 56% admitted to being on the edge of addiction, and 52% said social media makes them feel less confident about how they look or how interesting their life is.
The article points out that while more than 60% of youth believed friends showed a fake version of themselves on social media, 85% of youth questioned denied they were guilty of cyberbullying themselves.
In my opinion, the line is very thin. Do we want our kids to become reclusive and not have any friends? No. And we cannot deny that social media is the way the youth is forming meaningful friendships.
However, this doesn’t mean we stand back and let cyberbullying happen. It is our duty as parents to protect our children. If your child wants to have a Facebook account at 13, it is all good and well. However, you as a parent, need to enforce your right to monitor and control the content they consume on this platform just as you control the movies they watch based on age restriction.
This debate is bigger than the trust debate that comes with wanting to control content. They will hate you now but thank you when they are older and able to realise that you were not a dictator, but rather a protector.
Social media is a force for good if we allow it to be, but it can also be a dark force if we allow it to be. The fate of this debate is in your hands.