Digging Deeper: Social Media

Digging Deeper: Social Media
Image of social media apps on a phoneHow often do you find yourself checking your phone throughout the day? When you check it, do you log on to a social media app? If the answer is yes, you are among the 70% of Americans who check at least one social media app a day (PewResearch.org). This percentage has risen steadily over the years, and in the midst of a pandemic, internet and social media usage has skyrocketed.

Teenagers are regularly chastised for the amount of time spent on their phones, but recent studies have shown that age groups like Gen X, along with Baby Boomers, have spent just as much time checking Facebook as younger generations check other platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter (StudyFinds.org).

Because Americans have been asked to forgo social events and gatherings, many turn to the overwhelmingly easy way to communicate: social media. The accessibility of social media platforms has proved to be increasingly helpful when it comes to communication, but how does the wide variety of randomly posted thoughts, ideas, and pictures affect how we perceive ourselves?

After scrolling through Instagram for ten minutes it is likely that you have already seen smiling friends living their best lives within relatively happy pictures. There are also the countless celebrity posts of pictures from photoshoots and their multi-million dollar vacation homes staring back at you from the screen. Perfection is nearly impossible to come by, but when it comes to social media, there is nothing a little staging and editing can’t do to make the idea of perfection a reality. To some people this can be detrimental to their self-image. If their peers and celebrity icons can look and feel amazing, why can’t they? What these people (teenagers and adults alike) don’t realize is that this virtual “reality” they are perceiving as truth can be anything but.

This rift between self-image and unrealistic goals social media users have for themselves can cause some mental health issues. The overall motivation to post something on social media is driven by a need for a boost in self-esteem (McleanHospital.org). The sense of belonging among peers is a powerful tool used by social media platforms as a way to keep users coming back for more. According to Jacqueline Sperling, PhD, a Mclean Hospital psychologist, “One does not know how many likes a picture will get, who will ‘like’ the picture, and when the picture will receive likes. The unknown outcome and the possibility of a desired outcome can keep users engaged with the sites.” In other words, think of peer pressure, but online, where everything is indirect but just as influential.

The most vulnerable age group of users with self-image issues stemming from social media is teenagers, especially those in middle school. However, adults have also been known to be sensitive, and in turn post unrealistic images of themselves as a way to cope with their lack of self-confidence. The difference between these adults and children, however, is that adults have the means to alter themselves to coincide with their desires. Plastic surgeons around the country have seen an increase in adults opting for unnecessary surgeries as a way to appear more perfect in reality.

While social media is a great way to stay connected with peers, sometimes the incessant contact can have the opposite effect. Once again young teenagers are affected the most by the ease of being able to share, comment, or like another user’s content. Dr. Sperling says “middle school...is challenging for students with all of their developmental changes. As they go through puberty, they’re tasked with establishing their identity at a time when the frontal lobes in their brains are not fully developed, and there is a lack of impulse control. All of this happens while their relationships with peers become more important”. As presented through television and movie media for years, middle schoolers are known for their hyper-critical opinions of others. Already considered to be an unforgiving age group, in the past fifteen years social media has made it easier than ever for students to leave hurtful comments on their peers’ posts with little punishment.

All of this combined makes a firestorm of negative feedback about social media, so why then does 70% of the country opt to risk these negative effects and use it anyway? The answer is that there are just as many positive outlooks on social media as there are negative ones. When asked why he posts on social media, Senior Colt McCormick answers, “[I] think it is a great way to put yourself out there. I’ve met so many great people simply by posting. Doing this has also boosted my self-confidence and in a way helped rid [me] of my social awkwardness.” He is not the only one who feels this way; according to the Pew Research Center, around 80% of teens feel that social media is a great way to connect with current and new friends.

While many teens use these social platforms as a way to connect with others, some teens choose to use them as outlets for religious and political expression, or other personal feelings. This can be a dangerous way to communicate with others, as peers are more likely to express their disagreement online than in person, but if comfortable with backlash, this can be a great way to express yourself. Sophomore, Hannah Brown, says “A lot of the time [she] will post things that go with [her] beliefs such as politics. In this way [her posts represent her] because she wouldn't post something [she] doesn’t believe in.”

Studies on the effects of social media are constantly underway; some examine the positives and some focus only on the negatives. The important thing to take into consideration while consuming social media content is to be aware of how it affects you personally. You are the best judge of what is beneficial and harmful to your mental health. If you enjoy having a presence on social media, ask yourself why that is, the reason will most likely tell you if you have a healthy relationship with it or not. Whether you use social media as a way to connect with others, express yourself, or as Hannah Parker does, “purely a place to look back on a memory”, it is important that you remember to be courteous and respectful to others, just as you would be in person.

By: Addie Hedges