It’s no secret that social media is taking a toll on teenagers, especially girls. Filters and photo editing create the facade of a seemingly perfect life and put an emphasis on unrealistic beauty standards and constant comparison. This often leads to decreased self-esteem and to body image concerns.
Having the ability to post, comment and share anonymously gives rise to bullying and rumors spreading at the touch of a button. A study done by Pew Research Center found that 59% of US teens have been bullied or harassed online. Even more stark is the association between social media and poor mental health among adolescents.
A 2016 University of Glasgow study found that greater social media use was linked with worse sleep quality and higher levels of anxiety and depression. While there is not enough research at this time to definitively state causation, there is a clear relationship between the rise of social media and the rising rates of anxiety and depression among teens.
In the United States, parents, teachers and even legislators work hard to censor the content that adolescents consume. For example, Utah and Arizona have introduced legislation blocking access to online pornography. This year, states all over the country have limited how race can be taught in schools.
Now, many are pushing for Congress to update the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act to increase the age children are legally allowed to give away their data to 16 years old from 13. But access isn’t the issue here, and restriction won’t solve anything.
Social media can do a lot of good. Social media allow teens to broaden their social networks, which can be especially beneficial for teens living in remote areas, those who identify with a minority group or those with a disability. This connection can be extremely positive and even empowering.
Social media allow for exposure to new ideas, creativity and self-expression. They can simply be places to have fun or even spaces to find support and reach out for help. Not only teens, but everyone, can be exposed to positive role models, scientists, activists and educators all over the world via social media.
Yes, social media giants like Facebook (now Meta) can and should alter their apps to better protect their users. Instagram, for instance, can crack down on hate speech, and stop the shadow-banning – the secret censorship of a person, topic or community that is deemed “inappropriate” – of LGBTQ+ individuals and people of colour for posting educational content while blatantly racist posts are not. Snapchat can stop promoting filters that distort people’s faces and bodies. TikTok can monitor and remove comments that harass and bully users.
These changes and others would make social media safer spaces for everyone. The responsibility to restrict access, however, doesn’t fall solely on the companies, nor the government. The consumers of this content play a role in perpetuating the negative side of social media by fueling the algorithms and updates. So what happens then?
Adults are continually looking for ways to shield youths from issues that are an inevitable part of growing up in the 21st century. It’s not to say that all teens should be given free access to the Internet all day, every day. We all know adolescents can be impulsive and irrational, but they are also smarter and more capable than we give them credit for.
It’s during this time that teens get to explore who they are, mistakes and all. It is in adolescence that they begin to have abstract thoughts, challenge the status quo, define their sense of self and create a sense of innovation. Adolescence is when we as human beings get to flourish, and social media have the power to magnify that important growth.
Instead of restricting social media usage or access to pornography, we should be cultivating open conversations about them. Because it is not the Internet that is causing harm; it’s the lack of education. Teens need to be taught about healthy boundaries when it comes to social media and that responsibility lies with parents, teachers and anyone with a teen in their life.
Let’s talk to teens about how social media platforms make them feel; about how what we see on the Internet is not always the truth. Let’s educate our teens on boundaries and online safety; on healthy and fulfilling sexual relationships. Teens want to be treated like adults, and we can provide them with that little bit of freedom by talking to them, not hiding things from them. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service
(Emma McCarthy is a health communications writer and the creator of Public Health 4 All.)