Admit it: you love getting the likes. The comments. The notifications. We all do. But what are these social media apps doing to us, our families, and the next generation? While there are benefits to social media, such as staying in touch with long-distance friends and family, the negative consequences of social media are more than worth our consideration. Have you ever seen a group of teenagers hanging out together, all on their phones? What about a group of college students taking the same staged laughing selfie a million times over? Parents scrolling through Instagram instead of interacting with their kids at the park, or giving their kids a phone in order to calm a temper tantrum? Chances are, you’ve seen situations like these almost daily and we’ve all been an active participant in similar circumstances, whether or not we’d like to admit it.
According to a study by Common Sense Media, teenagers spend nine hours each day on their phones - and that does not include time for homework, school, etc. The same study reported that children ages 8-12 spend about six hours on their phones daily. A study by Mediakix concluded that the average person spends more than five years of their life on social media. So what are we are willingly dedicating five years of our lives to?
Collin Kartchner, founder of the #SaveTheKids campaign, claims that social media is one of today’s greatest public health crises. He shares hundreds of stories from kids admitting social media was the cause of their anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, and other forms of self-harm. He points out that this problem is not just in kids - adults share the same addictive behaviors towards social media and often prioritize it, sometimes subconsciously, over relationships. He accurately compares today’s social media to cigarettes when they were first becoming popular- what was once thought to be beneficial, accepted, and even strongly endorsed in society has become a drug that no one can put down.
As we scroll through Instagram and check Snapchat stories, it is easy to forget the basic truths that every social media user should know: behind every popular picture is dozens of different poses, at least a few fake smiles, and extensive editing using filters and photoshop apps. But how often do we look at these pictures and remind ourselves of those truths? Most of the time, we look at these pictures and assume that it is real life- it was a photo taken at random rather than a planned, posed, thoroughly-edited distorted reality. Decades ago, it was easy to look at a model in a magazine and say, “that’s not real, that’s just an airbrushed model, no one really looks like that,” creating space between yourself and the world’s expectations.
However, with social media, you see your friends, neighbors, and colleagues, and it feels natural to compare yourself to them because you lead similar lives. Through seeing others’ lives on social media, we often create unrealistic expectations for ourselves and for those around us. We see women who are incredibly toned after just having a baby and think, why can’t I look like that? We see husbands who bring their wives flowers every week and wonder why doesn’t my husband do that, does he not love me enough? We inherently think there is something wrong with us and those around us when those unrealistic expectations are not met. By constantly feeding our brains these unrealistic expectations, we set ourselves up for failure, because although we think we see the whole picture in each post, behind each photo is an entire world that we know nothing about.
Comparison, Anxiety, and Depression
Theodore Roosevelt said, “comparison is the thief of joy”; nothing creates more room for comparison than social media. Every time you are on social media, you are subconsciously comparing your everyday life to someone else’s highlight reel. With filters and photoshop, you see others look seemingly perfect and compare that perfect picture to how you look in real life, never taking into account what they look like in real life. You can confidently assume that with photos described as “#nofilter,” there were at least 50 other photos with differing lighting, poses, and facial expressions that were rejected; however, these rejected photos are never seen, because all that matters is the highlight reel.
Social media increases feelings of jealousy, comparison, inadequacy, and low self-esteem, all of which pave the way for anxiety and depression. Kartchner points out that suicide rates started climbing in 2011, the same year that Instagram and Snapchat became popular. While 20 years ago, you only needed to be accepted and liked by your family, your close friends, and the people you interacted with on a daily basis, social media has created a world where you feel the need to be accepted and liked by everyone. We are taught that the more followers and likes you have, the more accepted and loved you are; of course, this is not true, as these followers and likes cannot ultimately fulfill the need each of us has for deep, personal relationships.
This is especially true for children and teenagers, who often evaluate their entire lives, good and bad, with 50 pictures of their friends’ best moments. This evaluation leads kids to believe that they aren’t good enough and that something is wrong with them, which leads to anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, kids are unable to learn how to cope with these difficult emotions because they do not know how to connect with people and process emotions. However, social media can be used as a tool to numb pain so they choose to zone out while scrolling, turning back to what started the anxiety and depression in the first place. Although they may have 800 followers on social media, how many of those followers are friends they can actually connect with and confide in? They may think they are socially ‘connecting’ with those kids while in reality, all 800 of them are also looking for acceptance and isolating themselves. When life gets hard, a kid cannot talk to their 800 followers; they don’t know who to turn to.
Nowhere to Run
20 years ago, when a child was being bullied at school, they could find peace and solace when they returned home. Not anymore. These days, our children are unable to escape from their peers; the emotions and pressures they feel follow them from the school hallways to their homes, their dinner tables, and their bedrooms. For children who are being cyber bullied, there is no safe place to avoid hurtful words. Sadly, it’s easier for kids to be bullies when they can hide behind a screen instead of ridiculing face to face. Anonymous words prevent bullies from understanding just how harmful their words are to others because they are not able to see the reaction of the person they are bullying.
Present… Only for the Pictures
The poses, pictures, filters, captions, and stories can each take away from the actual moment that is happening - and when all of those factors are the focus, it’s as though you’re not even truly there. When the focus shifts from enjoying the people around you to trying to prove to other people that you’re enjoying the people around you, you can no longer be present with those you are actually with. It’s hard to create memories when you are not paying attention to what is actually happening and instead trying to create an image of what you want others to think is happening. This prevents you from deepening your relationships with the people you are with, as they become props for your photos instead of people you want to spend time with. You cannot be fully present with your friends if you are simultaneously trying to being present on social media; unfortunately, social media often wins causing actual friendships to deteriorate.
Dopamine and Addiction
Do you ever find yourself scrolling through your newsfeed- and suddenly an hour has passed? Or constantly hitting refresh to see if more people have liked your photo? Hint: that’s exactly what they wanted. The engineers behind social media platforms have admitted to creating addictive properties within the app to manipulate users into coming back for more. They recognized that each like, follow, and picture you post gives you instant gratification, which provides a spike of dopamine, a neurochemical that increases your general level of arousal. Addict experts and neuroscientists use “persuasion labs” to test addiction principles, including dopamine levels, in order to hook you on their app and exploit your brain to make money. Snapchat created ‘Snapstreaks,’ rewarding kids who send their friends a Snapchat at least once a day, while Instagram and Facebook have continuous scrolling on their newsfeeds, allowing you to effortlessly tune out the rest of the world- eerily similar to sitting at a Vegas slot machine and waiting for the next hit of dopamine.
Even after recognizing all of the aforementioned negative side effects of social media, because of the addictive principles that are constructed within each app, it is difficult to escape this powerful system. But it’s time to make a change. Adults and kids alike can start small, such as vowing to spend only one hour on social media per day or choosing to put all phones away from 5-9 PM. When we understand the facts, we can start reclaiming control of our lives instead of allowing social media to control us. Let’s reclaim those 5 years of life.