Is Social Media Good?
Tim Cook made his position clear: “I don’t have a kid, but I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on,” said the Apple CEO when visiting a group of college students in London earlier this year, according to The Guardian. “There are some things that I won’t allow; I don’t want them on a social network.”
Cook is just one of many to weigh in on the negative effect of untold hours on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and the like.
This week, former Google employee Tristan Harris and others announced the creation of the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit that will address the addictive nature of digital devices and apps. Harris has spoken and written extensively on the topic of companies developing apps that are addictive by design. Have a teen who’s afraid a missed Snap will hurt her Snapstreak or is obsessively checking for additional likes on that Instagram post? Those aren’t accidents, says Harris.
Harris isn’t the only one sounding the alarm bells. Jean Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us, identified iGen as people born between 1995 and 2012. These are young people who have never lived without the Internet, and who spend an inordinate amount of time on screens. Twenge argues that this has led to an explosion of depression, loneliness, sleep deprivation and even suicide.
“Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones,” says Twenge.
Risks of Social Media
Twenge, along with other experts, say that one of the most dangerous effects of unmanaged social media access is its ability to cut into and limit face-to-face interactions. Device-free dinners, community and religious events, simply hanging out with others, are all at risk when, according to Common Sense Media, the average teen spends nine hours a day online.
Other risks of social media go beyond merely squeezing out other activities. Last year, a large-scale study looked into how the biggest five social media networks — Snapchat, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter — impacted teen’s mental health. The results revealed that Instagram, commonly referred to as the “Compare and Despair” network, had the most damaging impact on teens. More so than the other networks, Instagram was found to have the most negative impact on sleep, body image, bullying, and also contributed to feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness. This is particularly noteworthy given that Instagram is used by more teens than any other network.
Positive Effects of Social Media
It turns out that how your child uses social media may be the most important questions of all. According to Duke University psychologist Jenna Clark and her colleagues, people who use social media to directly communicate with or to facilitate in-person interactions (say, to meet up after school), have more feelings of connectedness with others. Not surprisingly, people who spend more time scrolling through other’s posts without commenting or messaging are more likely to experience increased feelings of loneliness and isolation as a result of being on social media.
Have a teen Snapchatting plans to meet friends at the mall? Those feelings of connectedness can be a very positive effect of social media. “Friends and your connections with others are important at all stages of life, especially in those teen years,” says Eisenmann. “I’d rather have kids interacting with each other on social media rather than alone with a video screen.”
On the other hand, if your teen is spending countless hours passively scrolling through Instagram, that time could be contributing to everything from insomnia to an extremely negative self body image.
“Social media sites like Instagram and Facebook are not necessarily good or bad. Their value lies in how they are used and who is using them,” says Newport Beach-based psychologist Dr. Aaron Montgomery. “Many teens report that social media improves their connection with peers and allows them to express themselves in meaningful ways. For example, depressed and anxious teens may portray their depression and anxiety on social media as a strategy for self-expression, seeking help and support from their peers and to connect with other teens who have similar experiences. This is definitely a positive use of social media.”
Identify Negative From Positive Social Media Use
Teens who maintain extracurricular activities such as organized sports have been shown to experience fewer incidences of cyberbullying. And when they do encounter it, they’re less likely to be as negatively impacted by it as their non-active counterparts. Consistent device-free family dinners have also been shown to help protect teens form cyberbullying.
Experts agree that one of the most potentially harmful social media activities is “Social Snacking,” a kind of online activity that involves browsing through other people’s profiles, photos and comments without making any comments or contributions of your own. This kind of engagement can temporarily make people feel engaged but can later lead to greater feelings of loneliness, FOMO and exclusion. “Envying friends on social media can lead to depression. And research also shows spending too much time on electronics can impair a teen’s ability to read other people’s emotions, which could then impair their ability to maintain meaningful connections,” says Amy Morin, author of “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.” Morin encourages parents to help teens balance time on social media with off-screen activities: “Help your teen develop a healthy self-worth based on who she is at her core, not how she looks on social media or how many friends like her latest post. And every once in a while, encourage a digital detox. Declare Saturdays screen-free days or shut off your digital devices for a weekend every once in a while.”
Who you are communicating with also has a huge impact on whether social media is positive or not. In one study, teens who relied on social networks to communicate with family and close friends psychologically benefited from the interactions. When they passively connected with “weak ties,” or people outside of their close connections, they experienced an increase in feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Looking at pics of the popular girl on the weekend or making weekend plans with your best friend? Little surprise there which one will make you feel good about yourself, and which one won’t.
Looking to recommend some awesome Instagram accounts to your teen? Here are 5 ideas to get you going:
Encourage Your Teen to Curate Their Feed
San Diego-based psychotherapist Abigail Burd, LCSW, educates her clients about Social Comparison Theory. “It explains that we look to those that are similar around us, and how we rate, in order to know ourselves. We determine our own social and personal value based on how we stack up against others. The danger of social media is that we end up comparing our real life to other people’s highlight reel,” says Burd. “Most of my teen and Millennial clients know that rationally, but they still are looking.”
Why Banning Social Media Isn’t Positive For Teens
Banning social media may not be positive for teens either. In a newly published report, “Decreases in Psychological Well-Being Among American Adolescents After 2012 and Links to Screen Time During the Rise of Smartphone Technology,” researchers found that the more time adolescents spent on screens (texting, video gaming, social media) the more likely they were to experience a decline in psychological well-being. But teens who had some screen time — between one and five hours a week — were happier than those who got none at all. The least happy of the group? Teens who logged more than 20 hours of non-school related screen time a week.
While banning can backfire, breaks from social media can be incredibly positive for teens — provided the teen is the one deciding to do it. In a study carried out by the University of Chicago’s independent research organization, NORC in partnership with the Associated Press, more than 700 teens talked about the impact of being banned by parents from Snapchat, Instagram and the like. Not surprisingly, more than a third of teens reported feeling anxious when restricted from their social networks. And when the ban was over? They tended to increase the amount of time and number of posts than prior to the punishment.
When teens opt for a fast themselves, however, they not only didn’t experience Facebook FOMO; they even reported feeling “relieved” about the break, adding that it helped them better connect to people in real life.
Prosocial Apps: The Most Positive Social Network of All?
While researchers may debate whether Instagram and YouTube are positive or negative for teens, there is little disagreement that prosocial apps are incredibly beneficial to teen’s sense of psychological well being. These are apps and websites that offer ways for people to help others, work towards a good cause and see things from other people’s perspectives. Research has shown that exposure to pro-social content can improve kids’ moods, sleep and helpful behavior.
Here are some top picks:
Looking to learn how to code while making a potentially huge difference? At Free Code Camp, older teens can learn to code while helping non-profits. The site has in-depth learning opportunities to learn code through interactive courses and tutorials. While learning, kids can work on real-world programming jobs for non-profits. Kids connect with a huge community of developers who have donated more than $1 million in pro-bono code to date.
Be My Eyes is an app that connects the blind and visually impaired with sighted helpers from around the world via live video connection. Sighted people can accept real-time requests from the blind to assist seeing things via their phone’s camera. Challenges include anything from reading the expiration date on a carton of milk to navigating new surroundings. Volunteer helpers receive a notification for help and, if they accept, a live video connection is established.
This free running and distance tracker donates money on your behalf to different charitable organizations across the globe. The premise is simple: Choose the charity you’d like to donate to — there are more than 40 that include everything from Feeding America and Save the Children to Autism Speaks — then select whether you’re walking, running or biking. Charity Miles then tracks the movement of your phone, calculates the distance of your movements and donates accordingly.