The Social Media Scapegoat
In the deadly arena that is the older generation that can’t keep up versus the new generation of snowflakes, the older generation always revert back to one reason that has ruined today’s young people. It is not the ease at which younger people can obtain information today, nor is it the massive increases in competitiveness in the landscapes of education and the workplace. Instead, it is social media. As more and more children and adolescents develop mental health problems in our society, social media is the easiest and most quoted explanation. As social media began to dominate the way we interact, more children and adolescents started developing mental health issues. An obvious correlation. But a naive one. This post aims to explain why social media may play a role in the mental health epidemic but it’s not the root cause.
In the last post, we named the endless detriments that social media can have and it’s easy to know why so many people point the finger towards it. But as we point effortlessly, our understanding of social media and mental health is beginning to turn. A study led by Sarah Coyne, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University found that the amount of time spent on social media is not directly increasing anxiety or depression in teenagers. But how could this be after all the other research telling us differently? There is one very simple explanation. Education. It is now becoming clear that it is not social media that is increasing the likelihood of mental health problems. It is how people use it. When people are unaware of the dangers, social media can take over their lives and have a detrimental effect, kind of like smoking before health statistics came out. But as parents, schools and students are learning more about the dangers, the influence is having less of an effect.
While I do believe it is a cop out and all social media companies are just trying to monetise our data usage, Zuckerberg stands by the fact that Facebook was made to connect people, and it does its job. Because of social media, we can now immediately talk to someone across the world, something we could not do before. I’ve heard of fantastic stories where children have been able to build relationships with grandparents abroad because of social media. So that’s one benefit. On top of this, social media also enhances learning opportunities and anyone can now express both their ideas and world view by the touch of their fingers. Look at Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai.
Furthermore, social media organisations are moving in the right direction. Instagram has now removed the like button, meaning that people cannot be evaluated on their likes. Regarding security, GDPR has resulted in stricter data protection and the chances of your child being groomed online has fallen massively. This is something that is thankfully monitored.
Social media creates a platform for children to believe they can be famous. However, it should also be noted that it is society rather than social media that emphasises the importance of being famous. And evidence of this is in the fact that fame was sought after before social media. Look at X factor and Big Brother. The only difference is that social media is giving children hope that they can achieve it despite the likelihood being low. But it should also note that this is empowering people to make positive change and live better. And again, if you educate a child on the uselessness of being famous and intrinsic self worth rather than extrinsic self worth, then there is far less impact on social media. It’s important to know that there are two types of education. There is education that still involves will power such as learning that smoking is bad but you still have to apply discipline to stop smoking, and then there is learning that does not involve additional will power, such as knowing that Helsinki is the capital of Finland. Of course, knowing that we should limit our use of social media belongs to the first type of education but knowing that we should not judge our self worth on how many likes we get or knowing that how someone portrays their life on Instagram is not realistic is situated in the second type of education. Of course, we aim to teach both but the latter form of eduction that causes no will power can be the difference on social media making an impact.
It should also be noted that despite social media being extremely easy to access, social media platforms do state that you need to be at least 13 to set up an account. While this is ignored as children can just change their year of birth, this is still a good guideline to follow for parents. Despite this being of similar taste of breaking the law in an acceptable way such as illegally streaming, it’s there for a reason. No child under the age of 13 needs to be on social media. And of course this is difficult. I n reality, children will get on social media regardless of your consent. So in this context, trust your child to use social media sensibly but also be more aware of who you or your children are following. It’s great to have role models like the Body Gym or Beyonce, but if you’re following someone the same age as you who you believe is no better than you but far more successful, with the click of a button, unfollow. That is continuous downward comparison every day and that is not helpful to your mental health.
Therefore, I am not protraying social media as the world’s greatest gift. It’s not. It is highly addictive and comes with many dangers. But it will not make me, you or your child mentally ill if we know how to use it correctly. As we become more educated on how to use social media, it begins to impact our mental health less. I, as much as many, am not a fan of social media but I refuse to believe that it is the root cause to mental health problems. A claim that simplistic is the equivalent to saying that global warming is caused by you eating meat alone. Furthermore, huge advocates of the theory such as Jonathan Haidt have admitted that most of the research on this is only correlational. The truth is that the development of mental health issues in this generation is far more complicated than that. Of course, the introduction of social media has happened at the same time, but just because two things happened at the same time does not mean that one causes the other. For example, you would find that people eat more ice cream as more people drown. However, it would be ludicrous to believe that eating more ice cream causes drowning. It would instead make more sense that more ice cream consumption is because of hotter weather, which leads to more people swimming, which then leads to more people drowning. Again, the explanation is more complicated. This is something psychology students would be very familiar with known as correlation not equalling causation.
So finally, how can we better educate ourselves and our children? Well first place to start is to be aware that while social media is a form of connection, it is not the same as connection in person. While emojis has overcome the issue of reading emotions through text, we still lack full empathy through a screen. A cup of tea in person will always exceed messaging on Whatsapp. Always remind yourself of that. And then it is important to note for parents, social media is here and it’s here to stay. Trying to ban it for your teenager is not only wasted effort but it also has the potential to ostracise your child, which is not helpful either. Always remember to judge yourself with intrinsic worth such as posting an achievement that you’re proud of and that you can look back on, rather than extrinsic worth such as how many likes you have. And finally, if you feel another page is making you feel like shit, unfollow. Choosing the environment you’re in is under your control. If you feel your efforts won’t be enough, there are loads of great organisations such as Zeeko education that were set up to teach children how to be more aware of their cyber use.
Social media has its issues, but using it as a scapegoat for the mental health epidemic is lazy. The situation is far more complicated and the only way you can understand it is through education. So open your mind, educate yourself, and educate our future generations! Yours Sincerely, The Motus Movement.