Social media and its platforms: such as Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, have in general taken the world by storm, and youths in particular. They have connected the seven billion people of the earth like at no time before since Homo Sapiens took over from the Neanderthals. Intended to increase connectivity between persons on the heels of the Internet, it has, however, morphed to create changes in its users – especially youths – that might not have been predicted.
From studies conducted, it is clear that social media is addictive with young people, and they spend vast amounts of their time on it every day of their lives. “Scientists have found that teen social media overuse creates a stimulation pattern similar to the pattern created by other addictive behaviours. Hence, the brain responds to social media the same way it responds to other “rewards” — with a release of dopamine. These dopamine rushes are catalysed when a teen posts something online and is met with likes, shares, and positive comments from their peers.” Most parents are unaware of the amount of time their very young children spend on social media, but may observe the effects.
Social media certainly has its benefits for youths, since it is at this stage in life that they are learning to form relationships. “According to a report released in 2021 by Common Sense Media on social media’s effects on teens, about half of the 1,500 young people surveyed said social media is very important for them in order to get support and advice, feel less alone, and express themselves creatively, as well as for staying in touch with friends and family while social distancing. And 43 percent said that using social media makes them feel better when they are depressed, stressed, or anxious. Among LGBTQ youth, 52 percent said social media helps them feel better when they are experiencing these difficult emotions.”
Social media also assists youth to discover their identity by providing a forum for them to practice skills related to identity development. “In a longitudinal survey of freshmen at a state university, researchers found that teens who expressed their opinions on social media experienced increased well-being. In addition, another study found that adolescents who communicated more online had greater “self-concept clarity” — a clearer idea of who they were. This self-awareness supports mental health.”
But social media also has its downside for youths, and researchers at Facebook – which owns Instagram – found that the latter negatively affects their mental health. “They found that 13% of British teen Instagram users and 6% of American users in the same age segment thought about committing suicide while attributing such self-destructive feelings to the site.” But even against that background, when Facebook owner Mark Zuckerburg was questioned about the subject in a Congressional hearing, he insisted that such statistics were “misleading”. Unfortunately, there are no such studies in Guyana, but the dynamics are the same as should be the effects.
The negative and suicidal thoughts arise out of the operation of platforms like Instagram that is dominated by individuals like the Kardashians and other “influencers” who post pictures of themselves that have been heavily photoshopped and airbrushed to present images that are very unrealistic in comparison to the looks of average youths. All of these create tremendous pressures on youths to achieve that perfection, especially when it comes to looks and lifestyle. When they compare themselves, they despair at the gap, and feelings of inadequacy set in, which in turn leads to depressive and suicidal thoughts.
Overall, then, social media has its positives and negatives, but it is clear that there has to be more examination to ensure that the latter does not create a public health crisis in youths. While there have been calls for Governments to regulate social media, these have emanated more from those concerned about the platforms’ effectiveness in social mobilisation against Governments or other groups. But that is another story. For now, maybe parents should pay more attention as to where their children’s minds are at with that ubiquitous smartphone in their hands.