For most of us social media and teenagers is a new concept. The first social media site started in 1997, it was SixDegrees, most say that social media didn’t really start until the early 2000s and MySpace was the first to reach enough users to make a change in society. Today’s teenager has no concept of a time before social media and most can’t imagine life without the internet. It is a part of their daily life, they are making it a part of their definition of self. As parents we need to look at the effects of social media on teenagers so that we know what to expect and what dangers there may be.
As humans, we evolved into beings who rely on interaction or observation of others in order to determine their intentions. When someone approaches you, your instincts kick in and begin processing observations to determine whether or not they pose a threat. Are they heading my way to say hi and shake my hand or to mug me? Maybe they’re going to ask me for directions or offer to sell me a stolen watch. This ability is vital for survival. Experts are growing more and more concerned about the amount of time that teens are spending communicating without in person interaction.
Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD, a clinical psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect says:
“As a species we are very highly attuned to reading social cues. There’s no question kids are missing out on very critical social skills. In a way, texting and online communicating—it’s not like it creates a nonverbal learning disability, but it puts everybody in a nonverbal disabled context, where body language, facial expression, and even the smallest kinds of vocal reactions are rendered invisible.”The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age
I have found that if a conversation is important that I need to have it at least via a phone call, if not in person. I’m “old” and don’t understand all of the emojis and just the wrong click or swipe can cause a lot of confusion and stress.
I was talking to a lady I work with who told me she had seen one of her son’s posts on Facebook and “liked” it. The next day another son called her and said, “Mom, why did you hate John’s (name changed) Facebook post?” Shocked she said, “I didn’t! I clicked the like one!” She hadn’t put on her glasses or she hadn’t understood the emoji, she had selected the “hate” one. Her son talked her through how to fix it and she contacted John to tell him it was a mistake. Now, what would have happened if a) John didn’t believe that it was a mistake or b) her other son hadn’t guessed it was a mistake and called to check? What a mess there would have been!
Today’s teens freak out if you ask them to make a phone call or visit with someone face to face. They’re happy to interact with you on a text or screen level. I have online teenage friends who are happy to chat with me via social media any time, but when I see them in person they will answer with as few words as possible. I’m sure you know kids just like that.
How does this affect our relationships?
A face-to-face conversation can be scary. Remember when you first asked someone out? Chances are you worked up to it, you built yourself up, you imagined the worst, you asked your friends for their opinions and support. You took a chance, you put yourself on the line and you risked your emotions. Afterward, regardless of if the answer was yes or no, you dealt with a new round of emotions. Fear, insecurity, and doubt among others. This was your next hurdle.
When we text or message someone we can “stage” things, we can type it up, edit it, rewrite it, add some pictures, photoshop the best, make it perfect in every way. But you don’t see the effect your words are having. Where’s the excitement and glow of seeing someone’s face light up because you just said, “Hi”? You don’t see the agony on someone’s face when you turn them down for the movie. You don’t feel with them, that important connection is lost.
Anonymity changes what and how we communicate. People will text or post something they would never say in real life to a stranger, or many times to someone they know. Donna Wick, EdD, a clinical and developmental psychologist with Child Mind Institute says, “You hope to teach them that they can disagree without jeopardizing the relationship, but what social media is teaching them to do is disagree in ways that are more extreme and do jeopardize the relationship. It’s exactly what you don’t want to have happen.”
Can you imagine a teenager walking down the hall at school glancing at each person they pass and either ignoring them or putting a sticker on them that says “like,” “care,” “love,” or “hate”? What we would have given to have been able to photoshop our yearbook pictures into perfection. Why can’t we photoshop our driver’s license photos? Because they need to look like we really look like so we can use them for identification. That’s the key, we need to look like ourselves so we can be identified.
Dr. Wick goes on to say:
“Adolescence and the early twenties in particular are the years in which you are acutely aware of the contrasts between who you appear to be and who you think you are. It’s similar to the ‘imposter syndrome’ in psychology. As you get older and acquire more mastery, you begin to realize that you actually are good at some things, and then you feel that gap hopefully narrow. But imagine having your deepest darkest fear be that you aren’t as good as you look, and then imagine needing to look that good all the time! It’s exhausting.
Whatever we think of the ‘relationships’ maintained and in some cases initiated on social media, kids never get a break from them,” notes Dr. Wick. “And that, in and of itself, can produce anxiety. Everyone needs a respite from the demands of intimacy and connection; time alone to regroup, replenish and just chill out. When you don’t have that, it’s easy to become emotionally depleted, fertile ground for anxiety to breed.”“How Using Social Media Affects Teenagers”
The birth of anxiety and low self-esteem
Teenagers have enough to deal with, but social media and its mass production of the image of perfection is creating a new form of anxiety and low self-esteem in teenagers. They are always connected to each other, they are always being shown what’s new, what they should be doing in order to be accepted and it’s all immediate. If they post something or comment and don’t receive a response in less than a minute, anxiety sets in. As the silence lengthens the self-doubt increases. They don’t wonder if you’re taking a test or if your phone has been confiscated by a parent. A teenager’s thoughts turn toward wondering if they aren’t good enough, if they have fallen short, if they’re no longer your friend.
These are valid thoughts, unfortunately. Today teens don’t have a break-up conversation, they just quit responding, block, or “ghost” the person they don’t want to have a relationship with anymore. I know that I have had friends get very upset with me because I haven’t responded to a text fast enough. They don’t stop and think about the fact that if I’m traveling, I have no cell service between my house and town. If I’m home and the internet’s down I don’t have service either. They just go straight to having their feelings hurt.
It affects adults as well
Imagine you’re in a waiting room at the dentist and your phone’s battery dies. How do you feel? You’re already stressed because you’re waiting to see the dentist, but now you can’t distract yourself with your phone. What emotions are you experiencing? Panic? Boredom? Are you getting fidgety? Uncomfortable? Many of us don’t even know what time it is without our phones. Are the seconds turning into minutes? What’s happening? Are you comfortable with your thoughts?
More and more we are hearing of incidents of emotions getting out of hand for little things. We even have new terms to describe them such as “Road rage” or “Karens.” Why are little annoyances affecting us so much? Because our stress or distress tolerances are decreasing with the increase in reliance on technology. It used to be that when we stood in line at the grocery store we had conversations with those around us. Today we focus on our phones and the time we are “losing” as we stand here. We welcome the self-checkout lines because we don’t have to waste time interacting with people and the lines are shorter.
I’ll show you how old I am, I remember that during my college years I often came out of the grocery store excited because while standing in the checkout line a conversation started and the next thing I knew I had a date for later that night or the weekend. Can you imagine that in today’s world? No, we’re all social distancing and checking our phones while we wait for the line to move. Even when you see a bunch of kids together, their eyes are on their phones more than their friends.
To be continued…
Now, I’m going to cause you distress because you’re going to have to wait for the next part of this article. In the meantime, stop and consider how that makes you feel. You have just lost your instant gratification. Today’s teens are all about instant gratification, it’s what makes their world go round. In the next part of this article we’ll explore some of the positives and negatives of social media use.