Social media’s impact on teens and their mental wellbeing can be significant. Four in ten teens say they only post on social media to impress others.
The question on people’s minds right now is whether social media is good or bad for our mental health. New research indicates that it has the potential to be both.
The Harmful Effects of Social Media
According to the Wall Street Journal, forty per cent of teens say their sole purpose for posting on social media is to look good to other people. Thirty-two per cent of teenage girls felt that Instagram worsened their body insecurities.
For many years, there has been little debate amongst medical doctors about whether social media exacerbates existing medical conditions. Since the rise of social media began, it has been confirmed that rates of depression and social media are related.
Overexposure to these apps also allows for cyberbullying, body dysmorphic behaviour and addiction to technology. These factors combined are detrimental to mental wellbeing.
Instagram Aware of Mental Health Crisis
The WSJ confirms that new documents prove that the social media giant is aware of how harmful its Instagram app can be for teenage girls.
The newspaper shares findings of what Instagram’s internal researchers called a “teen mental health deep dive.” This includes a study which finds Instagram to exacerbate body image issues for one in three teenage girls.
The overwhelming presence of picture-perfect beauty and its addictive nature has the potential to inspire eating disorders. Unhealthy behaviour patterns and depression have also become apparent, according to the article. Citing an internal Instagram report from March 2020, the report explains that boys are also amongst those affected.
As a teens Instagram usage increases, those exposed to online harassment become collateral damage. Teens may experience adverse reactions which include depression and interrupted sleep patterns.
Fox reports that Karina Newtown, head of policy at Instagram, has plans to continue the company’s effort to
“understanding complex and difficult issues young people may struggle with.”
“A Partisan, But Curious”
Social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Jonathan Haidt, tells WSJ that he is concerned about the effects of social media on teens.
After a 2015 initiated study and a number of conversations with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Haidt says,
“I asked Mark to help us out as parents,” he said. “Mark said he was working on it.”
The CEO reached out in 2019, indicating issues of political polarisation and teen mental health.
“He believed that the research literature was contradictory and didn’t point clearly to any harmful causal effects,”
according to Mr. Haidt. He explains that he felt Mr. Zuckerberg at the time was, “a partisan, but curious.”
Feel-Good Social Media
As reported by Washington Post, body image researcher Lindsay Kite, co-author of “More Than a Body” says,
“Instagram perpetuates the myth that our happiness and ability to be loved are dependent on external things: for girls, it’s appearance, and for boys, it’s financial success,”
Kite explains that,
“The picture-perfect images on Instagram’s news feeds are so potent that they cement these superficial and harmful values into adolescent brains without them even knowing it”
Instagram is the second most popular social media platform, right behind its parent company Facebook. Newton says that it is the responsibility of the business to ensure that users feel good whilst using the apps.
Instagram has zero-tolerance for bullying and users on Facebook. Users are subject to banning over abusive posts or harassment.
WSJ reports that four in ten teens have unfollowed and unfriended users due to online bullying.
Controlling the Data
As social media companies control the data, it’s hard to study the effects of social media. For example, the impacts of cyberbullying on young users.
Recently, Instagram has put forward data which counters findings by the Wall Street Journal. Newton responds to the WSJ article via a post on Instagram. She writes,
“While the [Wall Street Journal] story focuses on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light, we stand by this research.”
“the research on the effects of social media on people’s well-being is mixed, and our own research mirrors external research.”
“what seems to matter most is how people use social media, and their state of mind when they use it,” noting that “issues like negative social comparison and anxiety exist in the world, so they’re going to exist on social media too.”
Instagram’s data confirms other research which indicates that the app promotes unhealthy social comparisons. It can affect users self-worth and encourages unhealthy comparisons with others.
Researchers also find, however, that it’s difficult to determine the nature of the relationship.
That is, whether teens usage of Instagram encourages negative self-evaluation or whether young people (already at-risk of unhealthy thinking patterns), are simply using social media more frequently.
Michael Robb, senior director of Research at Common Sense Media explains that,
“What’s helpful about this new data from Instagram is that it moves us past simplistic conversations about whether social media is good or bad to a conversation about what kinds of social media use are bad and for which kids.”
A July report by Newport Academy finds that platforms like TikTok, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat can become lifesaving outlets for marginalised teens, particularly LGBTQI+ teen communities.
Additionally, social media helps young people to connect during the pandemic.
A 2020 research article on teens and social media concludes that social media equips teens with the
“autonomy to explore and experiment with their identities in a space of their own, where they have control over what, how, and with whom they share information,”
Therefore, social media is particularly important during COVID-19; when real-life opportunities to connect with others and form social identities is limited.
Removing the lifeline which social media can provide to marginalised and covid-impacted teens is potentially worse than the absence of the social media platforms altogether.
Research on the effects of social media on human beings is mixed. Overall, social media doesn’t appear to be inherently good or bad for people. The most significant factors appear to be the ways in which social media is used and the state of mind of its user at the time of use.
A mixed-method study from Harvard describes the “see-saw” of positive and negative encounters that US teens have on social media platforms.
Pew Internet finds that 81% of US teens say that social media makes them feel more connected to their friends, whilst 26% report that social media makes them feel worse about their lives.
Instagram cites similar findings. Social comparison and anxieties exist in the physical world, therefore these emotions are undeniably present within social media environments.
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