In a crowded room, all is silent. Heads are bent, eyes fixed on a mobile device as fingers scroll endlessly through videos and images. Every now and then a chuckle or mutter can be heard while a child watches a cartoon loudly on their tablet. There is minimal conversation apart from a person showing a companion the latest viral video or post. Another person pulls on their screen over and over, refreshing their social media feed for more content to engage with. Does this scene sound familiar?
During the past two decades, social media has become an integral part of the lives of most Americans. Statista estimates that as of 2023, 308.2 million Americans regularly use a form of social media. The United States has the third-largest social media audience, following China and India. The number of social media users in the U.S. is projected to peak at 331 million by the year 2028.1
Humans by nature are social, and it is undeniable that social media platforms have impacted the way we navigate and interact with the world. Following the inception of Facebook in 2004, social media platforms have expanded our ability to connect with people across the globe.
It has allowed individuals to challenge cultural barriers, interact with other belief systems, and challenge ideas of identity. Society is seemingly more connected than ever before; fellowshipping with others is only the click of a button away. Platforms have even implemented computer algorithms that tailor a person’s social media feed to their unique interests. People have more freedom of expression, producing and even marketing their creations.
With all these benefits, you may wonder, What’s the harm in consuming media without limitations? Of course, in theory there’s no harm in watching some funny videos or commenting on a friend’s post. Social media use becomes a concern when it impacts one’s ability to attend to their responsibilities or affects their mental health. Like many things in life, social media can be a double-edged sword.
Social Media and Children
America’s youth have never known an age without the Internet and smartphones. Media is now consumable in a variety of ways, such as video games, social networking sites, and television. Unlike their parents, today’s youth can access information by inputting a few keystrokes.
A study conducted by Pew Research Center in 2022 estimated that 95 percent of American teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 engage with social media platforms, with 35 percent of teens reporting using social media “almost constantly.”2 They discovered that teenagers’ daily use of devices averaged five and a half hours, owing in part to the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. While social media has increased learning and creativity among today’s children, it has had several detrimental impacts on their mental and physical well-being.
A study conducted by the International Journal of Adolescence and Youth3 showed that the popularity of Internet usage has led to the rise of sedentary behavior. Children and adolescents who previously would be seen at local parks playing sports with their peers now choose to stay home connecting with their friends through video games or social networking.
As children have become less physically active, childhood obesity has risen in the United States, with an estimated 17 percent of children and adolescents classified as obese by their physicians. The lack of exercise also increases the risk of physical health conditions as well as being correlated with increased psychological distress.
Because of minimal vetting of age, children and adolescents can easily join social media platforms. Children today can easily find dangerous, harmful, or inappropriate content. Whether through computer algorithms or unwanted messages, children can be exposed to images of substance use, violence, or derogatory behavior. Exposure to harmful media has been linked with increased anxiety, depression, and potential substance use disorders.
Connected Yet Disconnected
Despite the connectivity of social media, Americans have moved away from face-to-face interactions and toward superficial relationships. Many Americans today prefer texting to phone conversations, which increases the physical and emotional disconnect from others. Physical interaction has been replaced with liking an individual’s social media post or sending them an instant message. Online activity creates a false sense of connection—individuals can engage with many “friends” on social media and in reality be socially isolated. Social networking has removed the emotional labor of developing relationships and has led to the breakdown of interpersonal skills.
The anonymity of social platforms has also led to the rise of the hateful behavior dubbed “cyberbullying.” It is a digital form of aggression in which individuals harass and threaten victims through social media, cell phones, email, or other electronic technologies. Individuals can mask their physical identity and contact their victims at all hours as a result of the Internet’s 24/7 availability.
Cyberbullying has risen among young people, with 45 percent of adolescents having experienced at least one form of online harassment. Adults experience cyberbullying as well, with up to 24 percent having been a target of harassment as determined by the Journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.4
According to the Pew Research Center,5 cyberbullying can be defined as offensive name calling, spreading false rumors, receiving explicit images, sharing of explicit images without consent, physical threats, and persistent questions about their activities or whereabouts. Cyberbullying has been linked with psychological distress, suicidal ideation, and suicide because of persistent online harassment.
What Can Be Done?
Unlimited access to the Internet via computers and smartphones has exposed our brains to a constant stream of visual stimuli. This is in part because social media is designed to be addictive. As we receive a like or comment on social media, our brain secretes dopamine, the chemical associated with reward or reinforcement of behaviors.
More interaction with social media creates a feedback loop or self-perpetuating cycle. For example, some people will close an app on their phone only to open it moments later and continuously refresh their feed, looking for the next exciting post. How can one break free?
Be mindful of your time. Do you know how much time you are currently spending on social media? Certain apps and phones have ways to monitor social media usage. By increasing our awareness of the total time spent on apps, we have a starting point for reducing our use.
Create opportunities for technology-free moments. Put your phone down during social gatherings, reconnect with old hobbies, start new hobbies, or go for a walk. Silence your app notifications to minimize distractions.
Set time limits. Set a timer as a boundary for using social media apps. Set aside a certain time of day to put the phone down. Following dinner, for example.
Reduce or even delete social media apps. Yes, it’s possible to live without them!
For Parents and Caregivers
Foster communication and expectations for social media usage. Together,families can come up with boundaries and rules and adhere to them. For example, limiting the use of technology one hour before bedtime.
Model healthy social media engagement. Children learn how to navigate the world through the way their caregiver operates. Parents can provide an example by limiting their own social media use, being mindful of the content they interact with, and the way they behave on social media.
Increase your awareness of what your child is consuming. Caregivers can limit the harm a child experiences by constantly communicating about the sites a child is engaging with and the types of posts or videos in their feeds.
Teach kids about the risks and benefits of social media. Empower children to be responsible with technology by educating them on the ways they can protect themselves, such as implementing privacy settings. This can look like setting a child’s media profile to “private,” which limits outside messages from individuals they do not know. Educate children on such dangers as cyberbullying, harassment, and inappropriate adult behavior.
For Children and Adolescents
Be mindful of what you share with others. The Internet is forever; our public information can be accessed and stored easily. Limit the amount of information you share publicly with those you don’t know. If you are unsure a post is appropriate, ask a parent or trusted adult. Block messages and friend requests from people you do not know.
Balance. Limit the use of devices to one hour before bedtime, because screen time is linked to disrupted sleep quality. Foster meaningful personal relationships by putting your phone down. Instead, make in-person interactions a priority to create relationships that last.
Ask for help. Reach out to a safe adult or close friend if you experience cyberbullying, harassment, or inappropriate social media interactions. Abuse lives in silence; reach out for support or contact the 988 Mental Health Crisis Lifeline. Reducing one’s social media use does not mean never using the Internet again. It is about becoming more intentional about the content you engage with and the priority it has in your life. Life is about balance. We can still find new content to interact with and have time for the important things.