There has been debate and controversy for some time now about the effects of social media and how it is failing to do one thing it was invented for – connecting people. Despite the world being more closer than ever due to the Internet, people aren’t. This paper attempts to understand why users of the Internet and social media are not using these platforms for the purpose they were built, and instead of seeing them as tools for validation, to flaunt, and most importantly, to get away from society. After that, the paper establishes a relationship between the use of social media platforms and declining self-esteem and negative perception of one’s own body, how this negative attitude affects one’s mind and body and why it’s so detrimental to one’s health. Finally, a conclusion is presented that discusses how these negative effects can be overcome and how to live a better life where social media is used for its true purpose.
Human beings have always been social animals and living in a group massively increased, if not, guaranteed their chances at survival. However, with incredible advancements in technology, humans no longer have to worry about elements like weather and animals that once threatened their existence. This technology has also enabled them to sustain themselves in isolation for very long periods of time. While we might not need human connections for our survival today, there is no doubt that humans have an innate need for close relationships and human companionship – living in a group is imperative for living a healthy life. However, with the rise of social media, an increasing number of people are substituting real-world meetings and close relationships with online friends and the convenience of “meeting online”. While doing this, these individuals are starving themselves of a very fundamental human need.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND TEENAGE HEALTH
Some of the most popular social media platforms today are Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. According to a recent study, as much as 95 percent of the teenagers today have access to a smartphone today and 45 percent of those teenagers say they are online “almost constantly”. Another recent study 78 percent of older teenagers between ages 18 and 24 are on Snapchat and Instagram and 71 percent of these teenagers check their Snapchat and Instagram app several times a day. One reason why such a large part of the teenage population spends most of its time on social media platforms is its convenience. Ever since the invention of the Internet, humans have tried to make everyday tasks even easier and faster. From ordering food to buying movie tickets. In the same way, platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook allow teenagers to keep up with their friends, know what’s going on in their circles and make new friends – all things they once used to do in offline, in real life, are now being done online because of the convenience. Most teenagers don’t understand the problem with this behavior. In fact, 45 percent of teenagers say that social media has had no positive or negative effect on their lives. But the truth is, there is an effect, and it’s usually negative.
Young in his thesis on Facebook and self-esteem found a positive relationship between the number of Facebook friends and the number of intimate relationships one had (Young, 2015). However, his findings do not take into account the psychology of teenage participants In argumentation theory, there is a fallacy called argumentum ad populum. According to the fallacy, when a large number of people conclude that something is true even if it isn’t, it’s considered to be true. A good example of this is when people believed in the geocentric theory, according to which the Earth was the center of the universe. So many people thought it to be true, that it somewhat became the truth. Similarly, so many teenagers argue that social media has no effect on their health that they think it’s true. Or that they have intimate relationships, even if they don’t. In the same paper, Young argues that most people use Facebook as a low commitment means to keep in touch with old friends or make new friends, but low commitment relationships cannot really be defined as intimate. But even if low commitment relationships are intimate in today’s generation, how do they negatively affect teenagers’ lives?
SOCIAL MEDIA’S EFFECT ON TEENAGE MENTALITY
In recent years there have been numerous efforts to study the effects of social media on the mental health of an individual and the general consensus has been that excessive use of social media has a very negative effect on the psychology of a person, in numerous ways.
For instance, a recent paper published by the Middle Tennessee State University talks about close and weak ties and how developing close ties is extremely important to live a healthy life. Weak ties can be described as the relationships we have with acquaintances, coworkers, neighbors, etc. These relationships are mostly casual and are made with a certain objective in mind and are broken as soon as there is no utility in maintaining these relationships. Close ties, on the other hand, are much stronger relationships that serve our emotional and social needs rather than just providing us with certain resources. Close ties are important as they lead to the mental well-being of an individual however, social media isn’t great at facilitating close ties – it was never meant to be. Still, individuals seek relationships on social and sometimes mistake weak ties with close ties. They stop maintaining real-world relationships under the pretense that they already have “close friends” on the Internet. While this can be true for a short while, online relationships cannot provide individuals with all the social and psychological needs of human beings. Therefore, in the long term, these online weak ties do a lot more damage to users.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND PHYSICAL HEALTH
We’ve known for a while that social media has had an adverse effect on the mental health of individuals, but recently, social media has also been affecting the physical health of people. In a way, being unhealthy mentally leads to various problems and risks that indirectly lead to physical damage, however, new studies show a clear, direct, and inverse relationship between social media usage and physical well-being. Most teenagers go through a phase where they pay extra attention to how their body looks. However, in the past, this didn’t affect teenagers as much as it does now. In the past, teenagers could only compare themselves with those around them and thus the scope of body comparison wasn’t very high. However, with the rise of platforms like Instagram, we are seeing the highest levels of social comparison than ever. Teenagers are obsessed with having the body they see and it’s not entirely their fault. Their perception of the world is more or less limited to what they see on the Internet and not everything gets popular on the Internet – certainly not everyday, mundane things. Therefore, teenagers are left with nothing but pictures of models who are living the perfect life. These “influencers” influence children to indirectly to be like them. This results in a vast majority of children going on diets and starving their bodies of essential nutrients. Some go a step further and buy the protein powders, makeup kits, clothes, etc. that these “influencers” suggest. The biggest unintended consequence of this lifestyle is body dissatisfaction. An increasing number of children don’t realize that it’s okay to look like children. Instead, they want to look more like adults. In fact, this problem is so widespread that a study revealed that “almost half of 25- to 74-year-old women and one-third of men of the same age had body dissatisfaction”. When teenagers feel like they are supposed to look like someone, and they cannot achieve that appearance, they feel like the odd one out. In their minds, everyone in the world looks like the models and influencers they see online. This results in social isolation. They substitute face-to-face interactions with low commitment online relationships which result in even further isolation. They have been in a world where everything is “picture perfect” for so long that their normal life feels out of place. They stop going out, they stop interacting with people and spend even more time online, where they may not have to reveal their identity. Social isolation among teenagers in the 21st century is clear. The number of teenagers who would meet up with their friends every day has declined 40 percent since 2000 and many teenagers feel like this is normal, some even feel that they have no choice.
In the past few years, numerous tests have been carried out to study the relationship between social media and self-esteem. According to one study, social comparisons have an inverse relationship with self-esteem. The study focused on Instagram and how it affected teenagers. The study failed to find a direct relationship with the usage of Instagram and teenagers’ self-esteem, however, it did find that excess Instagram usage could affect the self-esteem when the individual’s self-worth was dependent on approval from others. The paper defines self-esteem or self-worth as “ an individual’s positive or negative appraisal of the self; that is, the extent to which the individual views the self as worthwhile and competent.” Another test studied the effects of Facebook on an individual’s self-esteem and it found a clear relationship. The greater the time spent on Facebook, the lower the self-esteem on the individual. There are many theories as to why this happens. One theory suggests that it is simply because of our tendency to compare ourselves with others – social comparison. The study on Facebook’s effects found the 88 percent of its respondents engaged in social comparison and Facebook. And more importantly, 98 percent of that 88 percent engaged in upward social comparisons. Unsurprisingly, upward social comparisons have an adverse effect on the self-esteem of individuals as it makes them feel inferior to others.
PROBLEMS WITH LOWER SELF-ESTEEM AND BODY DISSATISFACTION
Apart from common and obvious problems to social media such as isolation from society, spending an unhealthy time inside, and sometimes starving oneself for extended periods of time to look better, there are some underlying and often overlooked problems to excess use of social media. First, excluding oneself from society significantly reduces their chances of getting opportunities to expand their personality, learn new things, and gain confidence. It also makes them vulnerable to some serious issues related to Internet-usage, like addiction, cyberbullying, and self-harm thoughts. Cyberbullying, in particular, has been plaguing the lives of young adults all over the world. When these young adults doubt their own self-worth, they become easy targets for bullies. Cyberbullying is quite common and teenagers are most at risk. Cyberbullying can result in depression, anxiety, severe isolation (especially in those with low self-esteem), and, sometimes it can even drive individuals to suicide.
There’s also the “Facebook depression” which is similar to classic depression but is brought by intense and extended usage of social media. Other problems with using social media platforms extensively include unintended educational consequences. Young adults spend more and more time on their phones, forgetting or ignoring their academic responsibilities. Sometimes, teenagers and college students bring their phones to college, further hurting their academics. Another threat that social media poses to young adults is its influential nature. As I mentioned above, young adults tend to idolize these “online superstars” and tend to imitate their lifestyle. However, what they see isn’t always true. In a survey where 600 Instagram images of women were studied at random in order to find out the type of content Instagram generally has. The results showed that the average body type in the 600 women was toned and thin. Young adults with developing minds could see this as the norm and expect themselves to look similar. This could also lead them to be dissatisfied with their current physique, not understanding that this is what teenagers are supposed to look like, which may be because their perception of what people generally look like is limited to what they see on Instagram.
WHY SOCIAL MEDIA?
Yes, social media is addictive. But that’s not the only reason, young adults today spend so much time on these platforms. It’s because they do not have a choice. Jean Twenge is a psychologist researching the effects of smartphones and social media on the lives of today’s adolescents and she found that today, teenagers born between 1995 and 2012 have been living their entire lives surrounded by the Internet and more recently, smartphones. Unlike the generations before them, they do not know a life without smartphones or social media.
A lot of research has been done on the topic of social media and its effects on the mental health of emerging adults. Some of this research points towards a clear and direct relationship between excess social media usage to declining mental health. While others point towards a less direct link, one that is influenced by other factors as well. While most of the research does associate social media with reduced self-worth and increased body dissatisfaction. However, one cannot boycott entire social media because of some negative content. Social media is there so people can express their feelings and thoughts. Most of these “influencers” are adults and treat their followers as such, not knowing that the followers could teenagers who are easily influential Perhaps this is the new way for teenagers to learn, experience, and share new things. The Internet and social networks have a lot of benefits like the ability to learn about any topic while not even moving. The Internet was invented to make lives easier for humans and in a way, it has. Through my research into the topic, I’ve come to believe that the biggest problem is not with teenagers spending an excessive amount of time on social media or unsuitable and negative content exists. I think the biggest problem is that teenagers have no choice but to turn to social media.