April 3, 2018

The adolescent and teen years have always been a challenging time. Peer pressure, insecurity and hormones are just some of the issues facing those in these age groups. But does social media exacerbate these problems?

For example, researchers from the Alberta Teachers’ Association, the University of Alberta, Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School released a study that found significant changes in students at every grade level as a result of digital technology. In the past three to five years, 90 percent of teachers at the University of Alberta saw increases in emotional challenges, 85 percent saw social challenges and 77 percent observed cognitive challenges. Also, 56 percent of teachers report an increase in the number of kids sharing stories about online harassment and/or cyberbullying. There are increases in other areas as well. The majority of teachers say there has been an increase in students diagnosed with the following conditions: anxiety disorders (85 percent), ADD and ADHD (75 percent), and such mood disorders as depression (73 percent).

Also, a recent study by researchers at the Royal Society for Public Health and Young Health Movement found that 91 percent of those between the ages of 16 and 24 said Instagram was the worst social media platform as it relates to mental health. Instagram was most likely to cause negative effects such as poor body image, fear of missing out and sleep deprivation. Snapchat came in second place, followed by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The researchers theorize that Instagram and Snapchat are image-focused platforms and users compare themselves to others.

review of 36 social media studies, published in JAMA Pediatrics, found that 23 percent of kids are victims of cyberbullying. The review also found that cyberbullying results in low self-esteem, depression, self-harm and behavioral problems — in both the victims and the bullies. In addition, cyberbullying was more likely to produce suicidal thoughts than traditional bullying.

Another study, conducted by researchers at Glasgow University found that kids (some of whom were pre-teens) were on social media until the wee morning hours, and some were on more than one device (for example, a phone and a tablet) so they could simultaneously view multiple sites. These individuals reported lower sleep quality rates in addition to higher levels of depression and anxiety.

In a survey by the National Campaign to Support Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, almost 20 percent of teens admitted to participating in "sexting" or sending nude photos.

The pressure these adolescents and teens feel can be intensified by the time they get to college. Stanford University coined the phrase “Duck syndrome” to describe the erroneous attitude of incoming freshmen that they’re struggling while everyone else is gliding along smoothly — but in reality, the gliders are also “paddling furiously under the water just to keep up.” Adolescents and teens become accustomed to creating the impression that everything is perfect to match the equally perfect posts of their friends. But it becomes too difficult to maintain this façade, resulting in suicide among college students who appear to be well-adjusted, but are actually experiencing mental and emotional problems.

Another report, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, reveals that among young adults between the ages of 19 and 32, those with high social media usage (those logging on for more than 2 hours a day and checking their accounts 58 times a week) were more likely to deal with feelings of isolation than those with low social media use (they logged on for 30 minutes and checked their accounts 9 times a week). 

In light of these studies, who is responsible for the role of social media in adolescent/teen depression and anxiety?

Many tech leaders seem to understand the unhealthy, addictive nature of technology in general and social media in particular. As far back as 2010, New York Times reporter Nick Bilton interviewed the late Steve Jobs of Apple. Jobs told Bilton that he limited the amount of technology that his kids use. Bill Gates shared that he didn’t let his kids have mobile devices until they were 14 years old, and he sets a time for them to turn off the devices at night.  

Evan Williams, one of the founders of Twitter, Medium and Blogger, told Bilton that his kids read physical books instead of using iPads. Dick Costolo, former CEO of Twitter, told Bilton that his teenagers had to be in the living room when they used their tech devices.

But, perhaps the most shocking revelation came from Sean Parker, former president of Facebook, in an interview with Axios. Referring to Facebook, Parker said, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

But there’s more. Parker also said, “ . . . How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? . . . And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever . . . And that's going to get you to contribute more content, and that's going to get you ... more likes and comments . . . It's a social-validation feedback loop ... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology . . . The inventors, creators — it's me, it's Mark [Zuckerberg], it's Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it's all of these people — understood this consciously . . . And we did it anyway.”

So, if Parker confessed that social media was designed to be addictive, should social media companies be responsible for depression, anxiety, bullying and other issues among adolescents and teens?

Donna Shea, director of The Peter Pan Center for Social and Emotional Growth, and Nadine Briggs, director of Simply Social Kids, are passionate about helping kids make and keep friends, and together have formed How to Make and Keep Friends, LLC. Shea and Briggs both lead community-based social groups at their centers in Massachusetts and have also formed the Social Success in School initiative. The two have also written several books for kids and teens, including, “Tips for Teens on Life and Social Success”.

Both Shea and Briggs believe that it is the job of parents to monitor their kid’s social media activity. “You wouldn’t allow your teen to put a lock on their bedroom door, but your teen is not only now interacting with peers at school or in your neighborhood, they are interacting with the entire world,” Shea said. “It is a parent’s job to be as involved in their teen’s online life as they are in their offline life.”

In fact, she is not in favor of giving adolescents and teens a phone as a gift. “Mobile devices belong to the parent and the teen is being allowed to use it,” Shea said. “A contract can be a useful tool before putting a device in the hands of your teen which would allow parents to have access to the phone.”

She believes that parents should monitor their adolescent/teen’s activity — and teens should know this is being done. “Parents do not need to be sneaky about that — tell your child to hand over the phone,” she said. Shea also recommends that parents use subscription services to view all of their teens’ activities. “Teens should be prepared to be monitored until they are of legal adult age,” she said.

However, Briggs admits that apps change so quickly that it’s almost impossible to keep up with them. “Other than doing your best to monitor your teen’s activity —  and it won’t be 100% effective - it’s important from the very beginning that you teach your child and teen to be good consumers of what is available to them,” Briggs said. “This is the new norm, and we think it’s the parent’s responsibility to be involved in their teen’s online life.”

She compares giving kids a phone or device to putting them behind the wheel of a car. “Both can be dangerous in their own way, but teens can learn the responsibilities that go along with these more adult activities.”

But, do parents bear sole responsibility? For example, everyone knows that tobacco is bad for your health, and people consume it willingly; however, they continue to sue and win lawsuits against tobacco companies. In 2014, one plaintiff was awarded $23.6 billion when her husband died of lung cancer as a result of smoking up to three packs of cigarettes a day. He started smoking at the age of 13 and died at the age of 36. The plaintiff (his widow) argued that the tobacco company willfully deceived consumers with addictive products.

How is this scenario different from what social media companies are doing? And speaking of willful deception, what about companies that make secretive apps that allow teens to hide their sexting?

If someone trips and falls on your property, you could be sued. If someone gets harmed at your nightclub, you could be held liable for not having “adequate security.” If one of your employees sexually harasses a colleague, you would be held responsible — even if you didn’t know about it. If you sell alcohol, you’re responsible for making sure it doesn’t get into the hands of a minor. In fact, according to the Dram Shop Law, if you let an adult have too many drinks and this individual is involved in an accident, you could be responsible.

However, if kids become addicted to a communication platform that was designed to be addictive, if they’re bullied online, if there are no safeguards to stop them from utilizing the types of secretive apps that encourage risky behavior, shouldn’t these companies be held responsible?

I think they should be, but this is not likely to happen until society holds them responsible. Since most adults are also addicted to social media — and some of them are internet bullies and engage in sexting, it seems unlikely that they would advocate for changes.

In the aforementioned study by the Royal Society for Public Health and Young Health Movement, researchers offered several ways to reduce some of the problems adolescents and teens face online. For example, one of the reasons kids feel so much pressure to look perfect is because of the doctored photos they see. The researchers recommend that social media companies include some sort of notification, such as a watermark, when photos have been digitally manipulated (68 percent of surveyed students support this action).

Another suggestion is to create a social media cap. Users would be logged out if they went over a pre-determined usage level (30 percent of surveyed students agree with this suggestion).

The majority of surveyed students (84 percent) approve of schools having classes on safe social media. 

Another suggestion by the researchers (which did not include student responses) was to use social media posts to identify kids and teens who might be at risk for mental health problems. However, problems have already been identified with using Facebook to identity potential problem drinkers.

In addition, it was suggested that youth workers be trained in digital media. 

These are nice Band-Aid solutions. But they don’t address the addictive nature of social media and the incredible amount of peer pressure that it involves. Parents can provide guidance, but history has shown that their values rarely outweigh the pressure of peers.

Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.” But in this situation, the social media giants can solve these problems with the exact same thinking they used to create them. Just as they figured out what it would take to make these platforms addictive, they can figure out what it would take to make the platforms less addictive. But don’t hold your breath because the person who creates the problem and profits from the problem has no incentive to solve the problem.

Terri Williams 
writes for a variety of clients including USA Today, Yahoo, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, Investopedia, and Robert Half. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Follow her on Twitter @Territoryone.