Growing up in the 21st century means that childhood is defined by, and inextricably linked to, social media. Children as young as grade 2 or 3 now have personal devices. Children in elementary and middle school have multiple social media accounts even though many of these require minimum ages of 13 or 14. It has become a way to connect, to chat, to post our thoughts, feelings and emotions. It provides answers to questions, gives feedback, and affirms or negates our feelings. It acts like a catalog of all the information available to us which is shared by others. It documents our lives in incredible detail if need be. Social media helps students connect with other students across the globe, collaborate together, post progress and receive feedback. It is a force of the 21st century world and it is a crucial part of our lives that cannot be ignored.
However, can we accept blindly every new app and innovation that comes along without knowing how they impact us? Of course we should right? I mean, technology is always good, it always moves us forward, it always makes life easier and simpler. After-all, many of today’s modern conveniences were once new inventions as well. The difference here lies in the deeply personal aspects of these social media platforms.
As Alison Graham explains, the goals of social media platforms are connections and socialization but it seems that the more we participate, the less social we actually become. Personalized technology that becomes so ingrained in our psyches that we literally become addicted to the likes that somehow indicate we have worth in this world. Herein lies the problem, with the blind acceptance of social media platforms, it shifts focus away from others and onto the self. As time goes on, the socializing aspect for which the apps were designed ceases to be the true driving force behind their use. The self often becomes the true reason for the constant posting and checking for likes. One researcher even tells of a young man who’s desire to take the perfect selfie drove him to suicidal tendencies. It tends to drive narcissism to the point where phycological trauma can occur.
People will argue that these anxieties have always existed and that alarmists are making too much of what we call social media addictions. When I was growing up, social time with friends was just that…time to socialize. Talking and laughing about what had happened that day, riding our bikes to another friend’s house to see if we could organize a soccer game. Some would argue that we look back at our childhood through rose coloured glasses in which we see a delightful world free of stress and anxiety. Of course stress and anxiety still existed before the age of social media. However, the difference lies in transparency of lives lived completely in the online environment. If your social status, well being, and self worth comes completely from what is said about you on social media, it’s little wonder that students can not handle being without their phones. A recent CNN documentary called #Being 13 looked at 13 year olds across the United States and their lives lived on social media.
- 61% of teens said they wanted to see if their online posts are getting likes and comments.
- 36% of teens said they wanted to see if their friends are doing things without them.
- 21% of teens said they wanted to make sure no one was saying mean things about them.
The Huffington Post released a study in which parents were asked if children were more susceptible to mental health problems in this day and age. The results indicated that social media was one of the driving forces behind mental health issues for youth. This is something that cannot be escaped whether it’s negative feedback on a selfie, bullying comments posted on your Facebook wall, or being left out of a group of friends. The digital online life follows students back to the privacy of their homes each night. Compulsively checking and rechecking to see what others have said about them has become normal for many teens. This new phenomenon, which has been deemed lurking, tends to lead to late night with little sleep as students scroll through feeds, answer texts or hit like and follow to show that they are “socially engaged” in popular culture.
So what does this all mean? First of all, as adults in a digital world it once again comes back to the idea of modelling proper social media use. What warrants a post or picture being placed online? Who will we allow to see it? What message are we trying to convey with this content? I always ask my students to THINK before they post anything.
Secondly, it’s important to set limits for social media use. This falls on the shoulders of the parents but it is something that can be discussed at school as well. Have students reflect meaningfully on how much they are online. What are they doing during those hours and are they balancing for a healthy lifestyle that involves enough sleep and exercise? It’s perhaps unfair to compare our childhood with the one in which students now find themselves. However, it is more than fair to help students find a balanced and healthy approach to life.