Dangers of Social Media for Youth
8-year-old Lalani “loved dressing up as a princess and playing with makeup.” (NY Times)
9-year-old Arriani liked basketball, kickball, and riding her bike.
Neither of these girls is alive to enjoy any of her favorite activities anymore.
Lalani and Arriani both died in 2021 after executing the “blackout challenge” on TikTok. The deaths of about 20 minors in recent months have also been linked to this challenge. (FoxNews)
Purposefully ingesting Tide Pods, taking enough Benadryl until you hallucinate, and licking public surfaces during the pandemic are just a few of the many other challenges that have been put out there on social media. When a challenge goes viral, as did the blackout challenge in 2021, people of all ages are drawn to it. In particular, teenagers are prone to being drawn to and influenced by social media platforms. (Those used most by teens are YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat.) This age group craves a sense of belonging and these youth even base their sense of identity on peer feedback. When something has gone viral and everybody at school is talking about it, it becomes a popularity thing to be part of the conversation, so more kids watch the videos. There is a real danger in this, especially when considering the results of a 2016 study by Psychological Science. This study showed that the part of the brain associated with imitation shows greater activity when viewing photos with many likes. It doesn’t matter if said photos show neutral behaviors or risky ones (such as smoking and drinking).
It should go without saying that imitating online challenges is just a small portion of the risks that can be posed by users of social media. As a therapist for children and adolescents, I have become intimately aware of said risks. I have lost track of the number of teenagers who have cited social media as an infallible source of information. Girls have told me that they curb their eating so they can be as skinny as other girls who get lots of likes. Some literally cite one of the main reasons behind their depression as not having as good a life as their classmates who constantly post all these amazing things on their stories (I hear this from adults too). Other clients have been coerced into sharing provocative pictures of themselves or have been offered access to drugs through online outlets. Still others have shared their experiences with cyberbullying, stories of which will break your heart. More than one of my adolescent clients has been told to kill herself by a group of girls who ganged up on her on Instagram. Cyberbullying is especially concerning when you look at the research. One study through the National Institute of Health, published in 2022, used a sample size of 10,000 youth with the average age of 12. Results showed, “The participants who experienced cyberbullying were more than 4 times as likely to report thoughts of suicide and attempts as those who didn’t.”
Great benefits are afforded to us through use of technology. That is to say, not all online activities and social media platforms are negative. Children and adolescents, whose brains are not fully developed and who may be unduly influenced by peers during this critical age and stage of development, may not be able to discern the negative from the positive. This underscores the very serious need of adults to be involved in the digital lives of our youth, just as we should be involved in their non-digital lives as well. Even the most diligent of parents cannot protect their children 24/7 but, “One of the most important things parents can do when it comes to their teens’ social media use is to keep the lines of communication open,” says Jacqueline Nesi, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University. Be aware of who your child follows and have open conversations with them about why these may or may not be good choices. Discuss with them the risks of social media use. Ask lots of questions and listen to understand, not to respond. Let your children know you are asking not to invade their privacy, as they may suggest, but because you love them and want to be sure they are safe against the pressures in the online world.
Sources: Pew Research.org; USAToday.com; NIH.gov