How Does Social Media Affect Teens?
Raising a Teenager in the Digital Age
It seems like the Internet just came out of nowhere and changed everything, including childhood. Whether this change has been for the better or worse depends on how you look at it.
Teens today are the first generation that cannot imagine life without the Internet and the various devices that connect us to it. Our electronic gadgets have become extensions of our bodies, like crutches. On the other hand, you might also say that these powerful tools give us wings. Some people believe that the Internet and its various social networking options affect us negatively while others beg to differ. Parents who cling to their pre-Internet way of life are scrambling to make sure they have the right answers to guide their kids.
Writers and researchers have flocked in to fuel the flames of this debate with rants and data (See footnotes below for studies and articles referred to here.) In this article, we'll explore both the advantages and disadvantages of the Internet and social networking for teenagers.
What About Your Teenager?
How much time is your kid spending online per day?
What Is Social Media's Impact on Mental Health and Development?
- Researchers have found that social media use can make profound changes to the brain in similar ways that drug addiction can. A team of psychologists have found that receiving likes on the internet releases dopamine in the brain. This creates a sense of pleasure. Similar triggers for this experience includes eating chocolate or winning money.
- Writing posts and receiving positive reinforcement from peers can become addicting, which leads to children spending more and more time on the internet. According to The New York Times, kids from ages eight to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day on electronic devices. This has led to teens receiving insufficient sleep, which can further lead to developing a myriad of mental health issues such anxiety and increased irritability.
- Researchers have found that teens can actually show symptoms similar to drug withdrawal when removed from their social media connections.
- Recent studies have also shown a correlation between heavy screen-mediated communication and depression. As this is a relatively new phenomenon, multiple theories are still being studied on the impact on mental health. A strong theory out there is that individuals often compare themselves to others they see on social media. Teens typically put on their best face on social media and don't often share their struggles. Others will only see them in a perfect, idealistic view. This form of Internet narcissism may make others feel inadequate about their own lives or body image. Even people sharing a perfect version of themselves can develop depression as they feel they can never live up to their online persona.
- The urge to constantly record and share everything we experience actually has an impact on our brain activity. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says our brains enter into a state of relaxation and rest when we become absorbed in an activity. Our brains shift to alpha waves and this flow, as it is called, has been linked to learning and talent development. Stopping to take photos and make posts disrupts this flow. Teens get cut off from the experience of taking in their moments as they share them.
- For shy people and introverts, the Internet can be a safe and controllable place to speak one's mind and develop high self-esteem. Those who feel marginalized can find a community of similar individuals and gain a sense of camaraderie. There can certainly be emotional support when a teen may not have such support in their own real lives.
- The anonymous aspect of the online experience can have a positive impact as well. That anonymity makes it easier to find help for social problems online where there is no stigma attached. There are also strong social and mental benefits to online interactions when there are genuine connections and dialogue rather than flaunting a false persona and comparing lifestyles. Just having someone listen to you is noted as being a good way to raise confidence and self-esteem.
- There can be a benefit to the strong influence of the Internet. A teen may see positive traits being liked and shared, such as healthy eating or academic success. A teen may then be motivated to follow those trends. A look at the effects of social media on teens highlights the fact that voter participation went up when people saw posts of their friends voting.
- In moderation, social networking can give teens more, not less, opportunities to "speak." Those who suffer from mental illness are often reluctant to speak to those close to them. The Internet can offer social relief and remove the sense of isolation.
What Are the Social Advantages and Disadvantages of the Internet?
- One of the most obvious negative aspects of social networking is losing face-to-face interactions with other people. Teens are sitting around with their gadgets in their hands all day long, tapping messages onto screens instead of communicating with real people. Many children feel more comfortable with virtual friends than with real ones. The majority think that it is easier to chat on Twitter because they lack communication skills.
- In his article The Effects of Social Media on Teenagers, Chris Crosby bemoans this negative impact on teenager's social skills and alludes to evidence to back it up. According to him, "Various reports suggest that about eighty-three percent of American youth use their phones for email, mobile internet, and texting [...] these American teens send and receive text messages 144 times a day. [...] Researchers have found that the middle-school, high school, and college students who used Facebook at least once during a 15-minute period get lower grades overall."
- According to clinical psychologist Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, the time teens are spending on texting and online communication means they are missing out on developing critical social skills. By communicating mostly through a media site, they are not learning how to read body language, facial expressions, or vocal inflections. They may not even be able to formulate a response in real time when interacting with people.
- Communicating through a screen also removes the more personal and intimidating aspects of human interaction. It's easier to keep your guard up with a text and you can't immediately see how your words are having an effect on someone. Some teens now say that talking over the phone is too intense because it is too direct. Anxiety over the basic act of talking can lead to problems later in life as social negotiations become more complex with romantic relationships and employment.
- This disconnect from personal interactions is believed to be responsible for the rise of cyberbullying. This form of bullying is seen as being easier to do because people do not see the reaction of their victims; there is seemingly no consequence for writing something online. The anonymity that the Internet can provide also makes cyberbullying easy and seems to actually embolden people to do it. Only 23 percent of people report that they have been cyberbullied by a complete stranger. The majority of harassers end up being friends or acquaintances.
- Peer pressure also takes on a new dimension on the Internet. A study at UCLA showed that the influence of others on social media can be very strong on teens despite online acquaintances being relative strangers. The study revealed that teens were more likely to like a photo that received many likes already. As the brain manifests itself to conform to the favor of others online, researchers believe this effect may be magnified in a teen's real life. They would want to be liked even more by people they actually know and care about. While peer pressure has always existed, teens were only previously able to use their judgement to read how others responded to them. They now have hard data with likes.
- Many parents often have no knowledge about what their kids do with their gadgets, oftentimes because they are new to—and perhaps not adept with—the social networking scene. Crosby says that, "While kids are plugged in to social media, only about 40% of parents are involved themselves." Because parents don't know the full picture, they also don't know how to deal with a teenager's potential overuse of social media. They might not even be aware that a problem like depression or bullying exists. Social networking can be immediately more engaging in a teenager's life than their parents are. This fact accentuates the illusion that virtual communication feels more real than face-to-face communication. Since the teenager and the parent live in different worlds, they both may experience feelings of disconnect.
However, shifting the focus of social connections to a device has its positives. In her piece describing the positive effects of social networking, Melissa Page cites eight.
- It educates. There are answers to any question at your fingertips. You can connect with teachers, coaches, experts, and collaborate with peers.
- It facilitates communication and gives access to real time understanding. This can help teens who are battling depression or feel marginalized in their community.
- It breaks down physical, geographical, and cultural barriers. Even if you're in a wheelchair, you can make friends with Minnesotans, Nigerians, and even your favorite authors.
- It strengthens relationships. You never have to lose touch with old friends. Who has time to write or wait for letters, anyway?
- It helps people find and connect with their community. They can easily discover when, where, and what is happening and how they can participate.
- It boosts confidence. Likes and nice comments are positive feedback. The impact of social media on self-confidence can be huge and this is a very positive one.
- It can help fight depression. According to Page, "Recent studies show that many teenagers have not chosen the path of suicide, thanks to these tools. Blogging can be therapeutic for teens who are confused, down, or need to vent frustrations."
- It's a tool for claiming identity. The personal profile and comment box are opportunities to be, say, and figure out who you are.
What Are the Effects of the Internet on Education?
- One look at a teenager's texts is enough to give any parent hard evidence that this online language they use could destroy everything they've learned in school as proper spelling, syntax, and grammar structures. They begin to speak these non-words and even slip them into their assignments for school. There is some concern that the line between formal and informal writing is becoming blurred.
- In Negative Effects of Social Networking Sites for Students, Steve Armstrong writes, "Students today have begun to rely on the accessibility of information that is available on the social media platforms specifically as well as the web in general in order to get answers. This means that there is a reduced focus on learning as well as on retaining information."
- Many people—teenagers and adults alike—do not know that the Internet is not always a reliable source for information.
- Teens use their cellphones for social reasons during classes, and multitasking has become a major distraction in the classroom. A look at the effects of Facebook on teens highlights that many who frequently check their profiles have lower grades and lower reading retention.
- Many teens usually spend sleepless nights on social media without the knowledge of their parents. This can lead to lower academic performance.
On the other hand, there are many huge educational benefits when the Internet and social media are used wisely.
- Access to diverse online communities opens the floodgates of experience, information, and data. This allows students to develop more informed personal, political, and cultural outlooks. According to the Pew Research Center, 20% of social media users actually changed their stance on a topic when they encountered another viewpoint online.
- Kids without access to libraries or experts can be as well-informed as those with access to every educational resource. Teenagers have more access to dialogues about politics, religion, racism, sexism, and other cultural biases. Exposure to a wider variety of viewpoints—and weeding through that information to gauge what is relevant and reliable—requires that students think critically.
- In addition, students will need to be adept in modes of online communication since many professions utilize and require knowledge of the Internet and social media.
- Teens who can't attend a class for whatever reason can participate in online education (aka distance learning). They can go online to find a wide range of educational options that offer flexibility, oftentimes at little or no cost.
An article that criticizes the notion of smartphones destroying a generation highlights how AP courses used Facebook to help students. Another article highlights how platforms like Twitter can keep students engaged in biology by having them create succinct explanations of lessons. At one middle school in Portland, Oregon, a teacher realized what a huge role the Internet played in her students' lives and decided that if you can't beat them, join them. Although 69% of American high schools have banned cellphones, her school didn't do that. Instead, they got every student's phone number and started calling habitually tardy kids to make sure they got to school on time. She started a social media program at her school. One year later, grades had gone up more than 50% school-wide, chronic absenteeism had been reduced by more than a third, and 20% more students were completing extra credit assignments.
So students' grades definitely suffer with unrestricted and unfocused use of the Internet and social media. But when schools embrace the Internet and social media and use them for educational purposes, everyone benefits.
What is your teenager doing online?
How Does Social Networking Affect a Teen's Money and Job Opportunities?
- In order to get online, teens must make a relatively large investment in gadgetry. After you add up the costs of a cellphone, a personal computer, apps, data plans, and wifi hookups, you've run up a hefty bill.
- Teens who have last year's model of devices will feel pressured to measure up and spend more money, so add in the expensive social stigma attached to not having the latest and greatest gadgets.
- The influential nature of the Internet can possibly make teens more likely to spend by seeing ads or their friends posting what they buy.
- A bad social media reputation can hurt job opportunities. Many employers are now going through the profiles of candidates. Employers reported in a survey that they have rejected candidates for inappropriate or discriminatory comments. Teens are known for lacking strong judgement or self-control as the part of the brain that controls impulse is still developing at that age. It is likely that their online presence may hurt them in their job search.
- There are certain economic benefits to be found online, especially in terms of flexible job opportunities. On sites like Slice the Pie, teenagers can rate music for pay. On sites like HubPages, they can write articles that can bring them money through revenue-sharing from advertisements and by using affiliate programs like Amazon. If you become a partner, YouTube pays for popular videos (the rate is around $1 per 1000 views).
- If a teenager finds work online, most online workplaces can pay via PayPal, one of the most reliable ways to spend and collect money online. Once a child is at least 13 years old, their parent can get them a PayPal account.
- The reality is that the modern workplace demands a strong emphasis on social media and online skills. According to Joseph Terach, founder and CEO of Resume Deli, a strong social media presence can be beneficial for job seekers as it can tell potential employers that you are savvy, have a personality, and can have good judgement. While there is a lot of content that can turn off employers, having no online presence gives the impression that you are hiding something or are not tech savvy.
- Social media has also given rise to the Internet celebrity. Regular people have found fame online by building a massive following through their social accounts with creativity and ingenuity. This has actually led to previously unknown people receiving endorsement deals and TV appearances.
- Teens can continue to learn how to work online and establish a professional reputation that will help them later in life.
More Food for Thought
Social Media: The New Way of Life
In summary, social networking has both its good and bad sides. Depending on the user, it can reap great benefits or just be a waste of time.
No matter what you decide—whether the computer is a heavenly tool or the gateway to hell—your teens will probably be engaging online at some point and may be using it more than you know right now, even if you have told them not to. The Internet is ubiquitous now. It's in classrooms, libraries, and places of work, readily accessible by anyone with a device. Even if your kid doesn't have a cellphone, the kid sitting next to them does. No matter what barriers you put up between your teenager and the Internet, the digital world will eventually seep through the cracks. The Internet is now a common facilitator for social interaction.
Maybe the question isn't whether social media is good or bad, but how to keep the lines of dialogue open between you and your teenagers so you can help them negotiate through this digital universe. You must show them how to distinguish good from bad, quality from fluff, and fact from fiction. You have to teach them how to use these tools to their advantage.
Do you think social media is an advantage or a disadvantage?
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