With Halloween upon us, there is a scary side of reality not wrapped in the make-believe night. Behind computer screens and lurking on smartphones, social media creeps into our lives with its all-consuming presence throughout the day and into twilight hours. Our endless consumption of social media has created a generation of digitally dazed, social media zombies who are driven by the desire to be in the know socially, who constantly update social media peers to daily, chronicled lives.
Even with scary statistics about our generation’s dependency and its negative effects, the reality is that social media is here to stay. According to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45% say they are online “almost constantly.” The dominance of social media creates a platform for comparison for impressionable teens and young adults and an endless pursuit of acceptance from friends as they wade through a sea of social media chronicled lives fortified in a bunch of fluff and filtered and edited for “perfection” that keeps everyone scrolling, liking and checking notifications on emoji-filled posts. According to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center for teens ages 13 to 17 years of age, 45% of teens feel overwhelmed by all the drama on social media; and 43% feel pressure to only post content that makes them look good to others, and 52% cite being bullied online.
With the constant connectivity, Mississippi Community Education Center’s (MCEC) Families First for Mississippi’s youth development program seeks to provide internet and social media safety education for students, parents, and educators. Through the NetSmartz Workshop, an interactive, educational program of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, MCEC provides age-appropriate resources to help teach practices to be safer online.
“Parents need to be aware that social media is consumption and you need to have specified parameters for those in your household who use social media. For instance, there isn’t anything wrong with your teen having a glass of chocolate milk, but as a parent you would step in and say we don’t drink a gallon of chocolate milk. Even the social media industry describes usage as consumption. Teenagers are constantly comparing themselves to the lives of their friends on social media and unrealistic photographs that have been reviewed, edited, and approved as content. They are constantly going to find that they come up short or lacking and fall short as the comparison is not reality. It is imperative for parents and educators to teach today’s youth the benefits of limiting social media consumption as it can affect healthy sleep patterns and propel depression,” said John Owen, CEAP, CAS, of Recovery Consultations and Addiction Educator Director of Families First for Mississippi.
With suicide being the second leading cause of death for teens in Mississippi, social media can add to the idea that everyone else has their life together. The saturated pictures of “happiness” on social media and others living “happy-go-lucky” lives and pictures of perfection on Facebook timelines, Instagram feeds and Snapchat stories can fuel depression. “Social media is an amplified example how people judge their insides by other people’s outsides. People put on social media how they want to be portrayed and how they want to be seen, but that is rarely the truth. Everyone has problems, and everybody is hurting. They see their friends doing so well, so they turn to medicating themselves and suicide,” Owen said.
Today’s teens are faced with bullying that doesn’t stop when they leave their school’s classrooms. Cyberbullying targets vulnerable and already self-conscious teens as hurtful words and messages fill Facebook timelines, Instagram feeds and Snapchat stories and videos. The American School Counselor Association suggests that bullying prevention and intervention best practices include training school personnel about the nature of bullying and its effects, how to respond if bullying is detected, and methods of reporting bullying incidents. Counselors should teach students how to identify cyberbullying both at school and away from school, discuss school policy with students, and provide students with methods of reporting cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying is an issue often seen with younger students as iPhones and social media use become integrated at every grade level. Counselors and teachers have to be proactive when it comes to cyberbullying rather than waiting until an incident occurs to educate students and staff. Students need to be empowered to understand how to recognize and combat bullying when it happens to them or when they see it occurring in the school.
In a May 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “revealed that the largest percentage increases in the rates of suicide occurred in girls aged 10 to 14 years. The study stated that, “in an unprecedented escalation, rates of suicide in this subgroup tripled between 1999 and 2014. Girls’ social media use may be more likely to result in interpersonal stress, a common factor associated with suicide attempts in youth. Social media use is more strongly associated with depression in girls compared with boys, and cyberbullying is more closely associated with emotional problems in girls compared with boys.”
The staggering statistics of the negative effects of social media usage are evident. Yes, social media does have redeeming value and a place in our society to stay connected to friends and family and a platform to celebrate and share life events; but there needs to be a paradigm shift in our thinking and actions towards social media to offset the negative effects. Teaching teens the value of disconnecting digitally to pursue activities where they cultivate their talents and interest is of great value. “To prevent teens from living exclusively in a virtual world, parents should encourage their teens to participate in activities such as team sports, church groups, school clubs or other activities that promote healthy self-esteem and require in-person social interactions,” said Kara White, LPC, NCC, NCSC, Counselor at New Summit School in Jackson, Mississippi.
The reality of living in an all-present digital world is the competition of time between the digital world and those physically in our presence. As adults we need to model for the next generation how to live distraction free without having to be constantly connected to the manic social media craze and show the importance of our face-to-face interactions with our family and friends. “Today’s teens listen to what you say, but even more watch what you do. Be willing to put down those laptops and cellphones for what’s more important, the interaction and memories made with your family and friends. It is good for you to step away from social media, and it is good for your kids to put it down; and spending more time on things that have more redeeming value is better for everyone’s life,” said John Owen, CEAP, CAS, of Recovery Consultations and Addiction Educator Director of Families First for Mississippi.