Is Social Media Turning Teens Into Directionless Losers?
When you’re on social media, do you ever feel that none of it’s real? Your Facebook feeds are full of images that say, “look what I did – aren’t you jealous?”. Routine events in our lives are transformed into incredible adventures. Families pose jumping for joy against sky-blue skies, simply because they’re so… happy.
For many social media users, every post is wonderfully touched up, edited, curated, and personally marketed to portray a life that doesn’t really exist.
Social Media: Bragging, Escapism, and Detox
Staring at such hyped-up social media makes some of us sad & jealous, while others can’t seem to wait for the escape it provides. Either way, research has shown us that this makes us depressed and for teens and people in their 20s, envious. We tell ourselves it’s all hype, but we’re sad and jealous anyway.
Most of us know, instinctively, that staring at social media too much is somehow bad for us. So we counter negative side effects by declaring “social media sabbaticals”. We “detox” ourselves every weekend or every Sunday. We reconnect with our loved ones and our friends, returning to reality.
But for others, the unreality of social media is a welcome escape into a virtual world where life seems easier and much rosier. They feel no need to detox, cleanse, take a sabbatical from it. They prefer it.
Shelly Turkle Has Studied Identity & the Internet for Decades
Starting back in the 1980s, Shelly Turkle began studying what happens to people when they spend lots of time interacting with machines. Even back then, she was concerned about what happened to identity when people pour themselves into machines. She noticed that early computer programmers thought differently about their sense of “self” after learning to program. Programming, it turned out, provoked self-reflection.
Now, thirty years later, you can say without a doubt that social media does indeed provoke self-reflection. In fact, scientists are finding strong links between heavy social media use and clinical-level narcissism.
If social media provokes self-reflection, and social media also allows you to construct a “better”, false identity, then imagine the possibilities/consequences. People are already building entire alternative lives on social media platforms. And it’s not just making sure every photo has a flattering angle and a skin tone-softening filter. It’s about truly attempting to have another life online.
Social Media Provides an Opportunity for Constant Escape and an Alternative Life
Thanks to the portability and constant connectedness offered by our smartphones, now we can push our child on the swing while we carry on internet love affairs (not that this is a common problem with teens, however).
One man Dr. Turke studied did just this. He had what he called is “online wife”. They chatted, sent pictures, and interacted in a number of ways… all online. The man was still happily married, by his account. He and his online wife never met in person, forming an entirely virtual relationship. Yet, an emotional bond was clearly there, just as the man’s son was there before him, swinging happily as he enjoyed being pushed by his dad.
The idea of escape is tempting for anyone, but it does call into question our sense of identity. Who is that man with the cell phone and the child on the swing? Is he cheating on his wife? Which of his two lives is more real to him? We can be sure his wife would care deeply about getting answers to these questions.
This is Especially Alarming for Teen Mental Health
Of course, when is identity more fragile than during your formative years, when you’re a teen? Social media cuts across the entire swathe of the age population, but as you might suspect, it’s king with teens. 92% of them are online daily, and 76% of teens use social media.
As Sherry Turkle noted, smartphones have made this possible. Now, the virtual life can be with us at all times, even when we’re trying to live our “real” lives. And for teens, who are new at navigating the ups and downs of their increasingly complex adult lives, that’s great news.
Teens, Smartphones & Social Media: BFF, But to What End?
Almost three-quarters of teens have access to a smartphone, and among African-American teens, the percentage rises to 85%. What this means is at any given moment, you can be sure that most of the teens around you are capable of “escaping” into their phones, where the lives they’ve constructed on social media can come to mean more than what’s really happening in the physical world.
We’d all love an escape, but it’s the very nature of dealing with reality that makes us learn and grow. For teens, the urge to escape may prove irresistible. The consequences of failing to face life’s real challenges are possibly even more serious for them than any other age group. As one Doctor puts it:
“We now know that learning to overcome challenges during adolescence develops initiative, an important characteristic of how we successfully pursue goals.”
~Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D.
That circles around to the original question: are we raising a new generation of directionless losers who can’t pursue goals? If they’re neatly tucked away in their carefully constructed social media world for much of the time, what’s happening to their ability to learn and grow from encounters in the physical world, where things are unpredictable, messy, and uncontrollable?
Nobody likes an ending with a question mark, but consider it food for thought as you set rules for yourself and your family on the use of social media around the home. At least maybe ban it at the dinner table and everyone can practice dealing with the messiness of that.