by Edwin Quinabo
Social media has been around long enough that its harmful effects are well documented by researchers. Poor mental health linked to social media among adolescents has become a real health crisis, researchers say.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 57% of high school girls and 29% of high school boys felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, with 22% of all high school students reporting they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the preceding year.
Researchers also found that the more time youth spend online, the likelihood increases for poor mental health.
Given this serious public health problem, is it time for the U.S. government to establish a minimum age for using social media like it does for cigarettes and alcohol?
Sen. Brian Schatz (D) thinks that time has come. The Hawaii senator recently co-sponsored and introduced bipartisan legislation that could prohibit users who are under age 13 from accessing social media platforms.
The legislation, called the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, would also require parental consent for 13 through 17-year-olds and prevent social media companies from feeding content using algorithms to users under the age of 18.
Schatz and co-sponsors Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Katie Britt (R-Ala) hope by introducing this new legislation that it will help protect children.
“The growing evidence is clear: social media is making kids more depressed and wreaking havoc on their mental health. While kids are suffering, social media companies are profiting. This needs to stop,” said Sen. Schatz. “Our bill will help us stop the growing social media health crisis…”
Sen. Murphy said, “As a parent of two kids – one a teenager and one about to be a teenager – I see firsthand the damage that social media companies, 100% committed to addicting our children to their screens, are doing to our society. This is a reality that we don’t have to accept. The alarm bells about social media’s devastating impact on kids have been sounding for a long time, and yet time and time again, these companies have proven they care more about profit than preventing the well-documented harm they cause. These algorithms are sending many down dangerous online rabbit holes, with little chance for parents to know what their kids are seeing online. None of this is out of Congress’s control, and this bipartisan legislation would take important steps to protect kids and hold social media companies accountable.”
Schatz said he expects significant pushback from tech companies. “The tech industry is going to come at this bill and every other kids online safety bill with everything it’s got, and they are going to come up with individual use cases and scenarios to try to poke holes in this,” Schatz said.
“But the burden of proof is on those who want to protect the status quo because the status quo is making a whole generation of users mentally ill.”
The U.S. Surgeon General has warned that 13 is too early for social media use and suggested that 16, 17, or 18 may be as well.
New platforms, new devices spur proliferation and rampant use
Since social media took off in the early 2000s with Friendster, Facebook, MySpace and Youtube, its proliferation keeps growing with the addition of new platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Tiktok. In addition, more tech devices beyond the computer like smart phones to notebooks are making access to social media possible anywhere, everywhere. This tech convenience is one reason why we now have three billion social media users worldwide.
According to a Pew Research Center report, social media users in the United States have increased by 1300% from 2005 to 2019.
Social media usage has also risen dramatically, with a recent study showing that teenagers and young adults may spend up to nine hours a day on social media.
Revolutionary benefits in the way we communicate
Social media also keeps growing because it has many benefits. And for most users who can limit their time spent online, social media’s benefits outweigh the costs. Users are drawn to social media to connect with family and friends, especially those who live in other states. It’s also a way to meet new people.
It’s also entertainment for streaming movies and downloading music. It has endless information on all topics from your favorite hobby to the latest in your specific occupation. It revolutionized current events; and revolutionized how we shop (online option). It has money-making opportunities for most businesses and small entrepreneurs.
Imelda Joaquin, a community leader, said, “I’m always interested in seeing where people travel, since that gives me inspiration for my own vacations. I also love seeing my family and friends, especially those that I don’t see very often.”
Rhea Alarin Bautista, MD., says she focuses her time on the business use of social media versus personal. “I am getting better, although I sometimes get sucked into drama like Selena vs Hailey. I mainly use social media for community engagement. I find that platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok have a wide reach that makes it an effective tool for engaging with community members and spreading information about events, initiatives, and other community-related topics. Social media platforms allow for real-time communication and feedback, making it easier for community members to engage with each other and with organizations or individuals leading community efforts.
Depression, anxiety, loneliness linked to frequent social media use
Two recent research shows social media’s darker side. The Child Mind Institute and The National Center for Health Research say people who frequently use social media feel more depressed and less happy with life than those who spend more time on non-screen-related activities. They also link higher rates of anxiety and loneliness with frequent social media use.
Dr. Bautisata said excessive use of social media also has been linked to issues such as cyberbullying, sleep disturbances, and a distorted sense of reality.
What online activities that could lead to mental health problems?
*Placing too much emphasis on comments or likes that you share. And if you don’t receive either one, you feel disappointed or invalidated.
*Comparing your posts to other people’s posts and wanting to live up to other people’s lives.
*Trolling others or its opposite — being cyberbullied.
*Engaging in risky behavior or doing something just to get a photo to share online.
*A fear of missing out (commonly referred to as FOMO) that leads to more and more social media usage.
Signs that you could be addicted
Similar to other types of addiction, experts say social media use could be an addiction when it becomes an obsession and starts to interfere with aspects of your life like your relationships, work, schooling of health. Other warning signs:
*Relying on social media as a way to cope with problems.
*Restlessness and irritability when not online.
*Thinking about social media whenever you aren’t using it and it is the first thing you do whenever you have the opportunity.
*Losing sleep and de-prioritizing self-care
How it works on the brain
Studies show social media apps have the same kind of effect on the brain as gambling or playing a slot machine. There is a feeling of reward when online by releasing dopamine – the feel-good chemical that is linked to having sex and eating your favorite foods.
Healthy tips to avoid social media taking over your life
For Gen Xers and older, they grew up without social media so they could have an easier time to break obsessive tendencies of living in a digital world. For today’s young adults and adolescents, they have no experience of living without the internet so common-sense social interactions and social skills to avoid the trappings of digital life might not appear to be “common-sense” at all.
Tips to control social media over usage include:
*Make in-person interactions as often as possible.
*Instead of dedicating most of your free time to social media, find a hobby or do volunteer work.
*This next one is a big commitment for the younger generation. Uninstall your social media apps. This will decrease the time you spend on social media dramatically.
*Turn off your phone while at work, at school, during meals.
*Schedule a time to use social media and keep with a pattern.
*Keep your bedroom clear of your phone, tablet or laptop.
Joaquin said, “Like many people in my circle, I could stand to scale back on my social media usage. I try to remember that there are many other ways to communicate. So instead of scrolling through my feed, sometimes I call my family and friends for direct updates on their lives instead.”
She elaborates, “As with new advancements in technology, there are pros and cons to social media. For example, it’s wonderful that we can easily keep up with people all over the world. But that shouldn’t come at the expense of tending to the relationships that we have in real life. When you are out with family and friends, consider putting your phone away so that you can be fully present in the moment.”
Dr. Bautista suggests “My advice is to find purpose in the use of social media. So many people are using these platforms as a healthy creative outlet which sometimes brings passive income streams. Why not blend your passion and business in this unique platform.”
As for avoiding negative situations while on social media, she said, “social media has the potential to take situations out of context. I find that being open and transparent with what you post is key to mitigate the negativity.”
Joaquin recommends not drawing comparisons to others in social media. “Social media has fostered a sense of constant comparison among users. We put ourselves in competition not just with people we know, but even with strangers. Who eats the most delicious meal? Who wears the most elegant outfit? Who lives the most glamorous life? We must remember that people only present a very specific version of themselves on social media, and we shouldn’t hold ourselves to that highly curated standard.”
How much time is considered healthy for social media usage
The healthy amount of time people spend on social media is relative. Dr. Bautista spends one hour per day on weekdays and 1-2 hours on weekends. Experts do not recommend specifically how much time people should or shouldn’t be spent on social media. They recommend, instead, being aware of the warning signs of addiction because social media can be beneficial in many ways as well as be work-related.
“It’s important to note that not everyone who uses social media excessively will experience negative mental health effects and that social media can be used in positive and healthy ways. However, it’s important for individuals to be aware of the potential risks associated with excessive social media use and to take steps to manage their social media consumption in a healthy way,” Dr. Bautista said.
While the potential for social media to have a negative impact is real, Joaquin said social media has the power to create strong digital communities. “For example, so many young people struggling with their identity can find solace and solidarity with friends online. It’s a matter of finding the right balance and also developing enough self-awareness to know when your social media usage maybe taking on an outsize influence in your daily life,” she said.
Experts say if you’re suffering from mental illness and believe it is related to your social media use, try some of the techniques to taper off from obsessive, unhealthy social media practices. If this doesn’t work, they recommend you talk to a counselor or health professional about it.
by Edwin Quinabo