Over the past few years, I’ve been struck by the increasing number of Open Sky parents who report feeling exasperated regarding their child’s “excessive use of social media” and “cell phone addiction.” Though students at Open Sky live outside without access to electronic devices and social media, I witness its impact on the students’ relationships to themselves and to their peers and loved ones. Social media use is not inherently problematic, but it is an important topic to discuss and understand more fully, especially as it relates to adolescent girls.
In talking with parents, I often hear them exhale a powerless sigh as they report that their child’s social media use is clearly a problem, but is not worse than that of other kids. This bind is similar to what I hear from many parents when discussing their children’s alcohol or marijuana use: “He drinks, but just like any normal teenager.” If everyone really was jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, I imagine most teenagers would do it too. But not everyone is really engaged in excessive social media use – are they?
Well, no. But most of them are.
The use of social media increases dramatically each year, with reports indicating 121 million new social media users joined the online community between the second and third quarters of 2017. There are more than 3 billion active social media users around the world, for a total of 42% of the 7.6 billion total people on this planet. The average American internet-user spends approximately two hours on social media per day. The average Millennial checks his or her phone 157 times a day. Some data indicates 98% of people ages 13 to 33 use some social media platform, and that 40% of that population acknowledges being addicted to social media.
Aside from some of the obvious safety concerns, such as exposure to illegal or dangerous content and/or people, cyber-bullying and harassment, inaccurate or harmful information, sexual solicitations, etc., there are additional mental health concerns. People are increasingly struggling to pay attention and focus, sleep, form healthy social connections, and develop self-worth. These issues appear to be leading to more concerning issues such as depression, anxiety, isolation, despair, and increased suicide rates. While social media has not been proven to cause those issues, it is clearly correlated and needs to be monitored closely.
Our brains respond to social media according to the principle of intermittent variable rewards. As others respond to our posts positively (through comments, “likes,” hearts, reaction emojis, etc.) we get a quick rush of dopamine in our brains, which produces a temporary feeling of elation. (This is the same reward system responsible for drug and behavioral addictions.) Over time, we want more of this feeling and our tolerance level increases, resetting our internal, baseline experience of pleasure.
As we grow increasingly dependent on those online social rewards, we seek more and more approval and validation from others, rather than developing and deriving it internally. And with more time spent online and less time engaged in pro-social, healthy activities, teens are missing opportunities to develop mastery and self-efficacy that could in turn, boost self-worth.
Among teens, particularly girls, there is a lot of pressure for social reciprocity. They expect each other to comment positively about their posts, and their self-esteem can be impacted negatively when people don’t comment on their posts. In addition, they report feeling the need to constantly monitor their phones so they can respond immediately to anything posted. With Snapchat, adolescents sometimes feel concern about maintaining their “streaks,” which indicate their level of connection to peers based on their publicly highlighted days since last interactions. I have seen fear of social rejection lead to new Open Sky students requesting their siblings or friends to maintain their streaks while they are living in the desert for two to three months.
And despite the genuine experiences of social connection that can occur with social media, emerging data show that teens with higher amounts of social media use actually feel lonelier and more left-out when they see peers posting about things they in which they were not included. This trend is particularly evident with girls, who tend to use social media more often than boys. Girls also tend to be more aggressive online, preferring cyber-bullying and/or ostracizing peers rather than the more common in-person, physical bullying done by boys.
Also of note, as people sleep with their phones next to their beds, and sometimes even in their beds, they tend to be more distracted throughout the night. This leaves them exhausted the next day, unable to concentrate at school, and less able to manage their emotions. This all has an impact on their academic performance and potentially their self-worth.
Rates of depression and isolation are increasing in heavy social media users. Connected to this increase are rising suicide rates as well. The suicide rate for boys is still higher than for girls, but the acceleration of suicide rates for girls is currently higher than for boys.
Social media does have some clear potential benefits. It can foster positive connection with peers and family, support development of resilience and character, provide access to mental health resources, create opportunities to explore interests and meaningful causes, and create platforms for learning. However, we need to strongly consider the above trends emerging in research so we can make informed decisions about social media for ourselves and for our children.
My message is not one of abstinence and prohibition. In fact, there is evidence to suggest total restriction of social media can be counterproductive, as teens do not learn the skills necessary to safely navigate these services. Instead, the research suggests that parents should:
In order for children to willingly let their parents intervene in their social media lives (without going underground and developing secret accounts), parents need to practice authoritative parenting: a balance between firmness and warmth.
Wilderness provides a unique opportunity to detox from screens and social media use. The small, intimate peer culture promotes genuine social connection based on in-person interactions and the development of healthy social skills. The slow pace of living offers time for self-reflection and the development of emotional resilience. Challenges inherent to the program, such as bow-drill fire-making, hiking, and shelter-building develop self-efficacy and self-worth. And the overall experience slows the need for hyper-stimulation that students often possess upon arrival. The Family Services we offer at Open Sky support healthier connections between parents and their children and can help parents begin to develop an authoritative parenting style.
Staying informed and creating balance, limits, dialogue, and relationship are the keys to helping your child navigate social media. The desire and need to feel loved and a sense of belonging is fundamental to humans, but we need to satisfy this need carefully and guide our children to do the same. Perhaps that will mean we put down our phones, tablets, and computers, and explore the many ways to meet this basic human need beyond the screen.