The world of social media is rapidly expanding, and to some it seems like the adolescents of today spend their entire lives checking their phones, scrolling down Facebook, and doing whatever else it is the older generations think teenagers do online. While the advancement of social media in the 21st century has undoubtedly improved our lives in some aspects, there have also been some very adverse effects on the largest group of social media users: teenagers. Some of the more pressing concerns include cyber bullying from peers and even strangers, a greater pressure to conform to beauty standards and body ideals, and a rising trend in poor performance at school due to the distractions that social media present.
One of parents’ biggest fears of the new age of technology is cyber bullying. Unlike the “old school” bullying the parents of today’s teens experienced in their youth where home meant a safe haven away from the torments of their abusers, teenagers of the 21st century are almost unable to escape cyber bullying as they can access their social media accounts anywhere at any time of day. Children and teenagers have increasingly easier and more frequent access to technology with many schools now introducing “bring your own device” policies in which the students must provide their own computer or laptop device to use in the classroom (Ricci, 2015). Combine this with free wireless internet access and under-developed prefrontal cortices and we have trouble on our hands. Thanks to the wide variety and popularity of social media sites today, these platforms have become the perfect breeding ground for abuse and harassment. Anything from degrading posts bad-mouthing a person or group of people on public forums and embarrassing pictures shared without consent, to direct threats and bullying via private messaging services are all commonly experienced forms of cyber bullying. According to The Report from Counselling Service concerning Cyber Bullying, a shocking 52% of adolescents had reported being victims of cyber bullying in 2014 alone, and 25% reported being repeatedly cyber bullied. Like all forms of abuse, cyber bullying can lead to severe mental health issues such as depression and anxiety (Scott, n.d.), and eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia (Gallivan, 2014). Adolescents experiencing these issues as a result of cyber bullying often feel alone with over half of teenage victims not confiding in their parents when they experience abuse online (nobullying.com, 2016), so the uprising of social media has become a real danger to parents and adolescents now more than ever.
A prominent issue concerning young people today is body image and self esteem, and as mentioned above social media has seen an increase in mental health issues relating to this issue such anorexia nervosa and bulimia (Gallivan, 2014). One of the most common uses of social media, particularly among young women, is to find how-to and inspirational self improvement content. This includes advice and tutorials on fashion, makeup, fitness and dieting in order to achieve “the look” all their favourite celebrities are flaunting. A dangerous trend on social media over the last few years is the “thinspiration” movement: pictures of super skinny models and actresses often accompanied by quotes designed to motivate the viewer to want to become thinner (goodtherapy.org, 2015). This trend can be seen all over social media on platforms such as Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest and of course Facebook with teenagers often coming across this content unintentionally. While social media is well known for targeting girls in telling them what the ideal body type is, it isn’t just girls feeling the pressure to look good: over 50% of adolescent girls and 30% of adolescent boys are using extreme measures to control their weight, like skipping meals, force vomiting, taking laxatives and overexercising (Gallivan, 2014). Another feature of social media that feeds into our needs to look our best is the editing apps and programs that allow teenagers to enhance their images before they upload them, and this is something almost every teenager has done throughout their social media days. Everywhere teenagers look they are being bombarded with pressures to have the ideal image on both television and in magazines, and now with the addition of social media being a part of their every day lives, this is an issue they cannot ignore.
With all these problems arising from the usage of social media it is clear that teenagers spend much of their time on these platforms throughout the day. One report conducted by the Miriam Hospital’s Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine found that the average female high school student spends 12 hours a day on some form of media (HNGN, 2013), and this is a major cause of distraction from their schoolwork and homework. The addiction adolescents have to social media in its many forms is not only bad for their health but also their academic performance. It isn’t just high school students’ grades being trodden on either, with a large number of university students also complaining that the allure of Facebook and other sites is negatively affecting their course outcomes. A Sydney University-based group has taken to Facebook, ironically, to create a support network for those failing their subjects at university as a result of time wasted on Facebook, and with the group having over 1000 members (Wilson, 2012) it shows what a significant problem social media is having on today’s youth. Why can’t these students just show some self discipline, you ask? Why can’t they just get their work done when they need to and not play around online? Well the reason social media is such a distraction from studies is that the majority of studying is now done online, so it is easy to simply have a social media site open in another window on your computer, for example, and flick over to it every now and then while you are working. This can take hours out of a student’s productivity and the addictive nature of social media means it can be difficult to switch off.
With many more social media platforms becoming popular and being more widely used than ever before, we are now seeing some very problematic issues which cannot be ignored. Yes, before the age of social media there was bullying and negative body image issues and there have always been distractions from schoolwork, but the difference nowadays is that these problems are now carried with us everywhere we go, in our pockets or waiting for us at home. While not all social media can be labelled as toxic, the presence of social media in today’s society has had a profound effect on young people in some devastating ways.
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