In the spotlight

How Social Media is Really Affecting Your Kids

By Ilan Preskovsky

Considering its humble origins as an interactive platform through which creators could connect with audiences (Myspace) and as a student project that was initially just a collection of basic information of the students at Harvard (Facebook), it’s staggering to see how far social media has come in just fifteen short years. The current social media heavyweights, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (along with video sharing platforms like YouTube and, heaven help us, TikTok), aren’t just ubiquitous in our current cultural landscape, they are the current cultural landscape.

It’s reached the point that high speed internet and the proliferation of smartphones and tablets don’t so much host social media as they exist purely for the purpose of social media. Artists, businesses, clergymen, celebrities, and those in the service industry no longer merely use Facebook or Twitter for simple advertising purposes, but have become entirely dependent on them to the point that they dedicate a substantial part of their time, resources, and money to making sure that they never vanish from public view for hours, let alone days.

Of all the social media, though, nothing better exemplifies the 21st century experience so far than Twitter: a technological marvel that allows people to share their immediate thoughts with the entire world, but, with its restrictions on how many characters you can use per post and an almost complete lack of restrictions on what you can post, it has created a culture high in divisiveness, but extremely low in nuance and subtlety. Those of us who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s under the shadow of the magical-sounding year 2000 probably thought “space travel”, “flying car”, or “robot” would be the buzzword of the new millennium – imagine our shock to learn that it’s actually “tweet”!

The invention of social media in the mid noughties was so seismic, in fact, that the current generation – Generation Z or iGen, as they are sometimes called – are defined by coming of age at the same time as social media did. To understand the modern adolescent, you need to understand social media, and to understand the kind of adults that they will become, you need to do the same.

Sadly, by the time we do, it may well be too late. We’re only really just starting to understand the effects of social media on young people, with much of the research having been conducted over only the past few years. To the surprise of precisely no one, though, early reports are not exactly reassuring – even if some of the benefits of social media can’t be denied.

The good bits

For a start, though we tend to forget this, social media, in its widest definition, includes everything from Microsoft Meetings to Zoom to Skype and, though these certainly come with some of their own challenges, they offer real convenience and the unprecedented ability to connect with people across the globe. And as any socially anxious introvert would tell you, being able to talk with friends after school without having to phone and speak to their parents first is a blessing of the highest order.

More generally, the greater connectivity offered by all social media – even by more infamous social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit – offers real benefits to both adults and teenagers. Some of these benefits can be, and often are, turned into some of the more worrying aspects of social media, but that doesn’t change their worth when used properly. Needless to say, this doesn’t really apply to younger children, who have no business being on social media sites, as is evident by even the sites themselves requiring users to be older than the age of thirteen.

The amount that parents are willing to expose their kids to the outside world obviously varies tremendously according to personal parenting style, religious/cultural beliefs, and the specific needs of their children, but to those who prefer their teenagers to be open to multiple viewpoints outside their own experience, social media can be a real boon. This obviously comes with serious risks and I’ll deal with the dark side of this sort of exposure shortly, but there’s a reason why Generation Z, for all of the serious problems they face, have a much broader and more inclusive view of the world even than those of us who grew up during the initial explosion of the world wide web.

More even than wider knowledge of the world and appreciation of different viewpoints, though, the healthiest and most beneficial aspect of social media for teenagers is that it allows those kids who never quite fit with their immediate social circles to connect with those of a similar mindset or temperament. Social media allows these kids who can’t find their place at school or at shul to connect with like-minded young people from across the globe.

With so many social avenues opened up by social media, then, and with all the benefits that they have to offer in general, why is social media making so many of our kids so very, very miserable?

A crisis of youth

Many of the biggest drawbacks to social media on a wider societal level are pretty obvious. They can be gigantic time-sucks. They create echo chambers of like-minded people that reinforce existing prejudices and biases rather than challenge them. They are used by massive corporations to gather all sorts of private information that are signed away in purposely long and boring user agreements. They – especially Twitter – often devolve into black holes of hatred and bigotry.

These things can be overcome, at least to a point, by individuals with enough awareness to identify their own weaknesses and the many dangers built into social media, including an understanding of what sites worth many billions of dollars are actually after. Managing the amount of time spent on Facebook or Instagram is more tricky, but hardly undoable – and that we, as Jews, have a day of the week where social media becomes a persona non grata in our lives for 25 hours, is almost enough of a reason on its own to become shomer Shabbos. If you make social media work for you rather than the other way around, you can reap the benefits of everything from light entertainment to staying connected with loved ones from around the world.

Logically, you would think that the group of people who would do best at navigating the many pitfalls of social media would be those who grow up with it; those to whom the ins and outs of a smartphone are second nature to them by the time they turn six. You would, however, be wrong. Very, very wrong.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, wrote quite extensively about the effects that social media are having on society, and most especially on our children, in his last book, Morality. Rabbi Sacks actually drew extensively from the work of Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School of Business, and both Haidt and Rabbi Sacks constantly reference Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, known for her research into generational differences, and whose book, iGen, is probably the definitive guide to the psychological mindset of the current generation.

Her research, along with numerous other social scientists, may be fairly recent, but according to Twenge, points towards an extremely concerning trend in the young people of today. In short, sometime around 2012, the rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide in teenagers between the ages of twelve and fourteen suddenly started to spike to unprecedented levels. After being relatively stable for years, these mental health markers were suddenly increasing by as much as 50 percent, indicating a crisis in the mental health of young adolescents that “hadn’t been seen for years, if ever”. Scarily, this wasn’t just a temporary anomaly, but was the start of something that has remained at a constantly alarming level ever since.

As you may have guessed, 2012 was the year that smartphones exploded in popularity, overtaking old fashioned cell phones for the first time, and 2012 was the year that, not coincidentally, saw an entire generation of children born in and around 1996 logging onto social media for the first, but definitely not last, time. It took some time to empirically verify what seems obvious in retrospect: something about social media was wreaking havoc on the mental health of an entire generation of young people.

Coddling and wrecking young minds all at once

Jonathan Haidt has come to be known as one of the most respected psychologists in the United States for his often ground-breaking work on the psychology of morality, politics, and religion, but, in recent years, he has made countless media appearances and written various articles and an entire book (with Greg Lukianoff) about exactly this mental health crisis and about how it has created a generation of university students that are so fragile that they have found the need to create “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to protect them from ideas with which they disagree.

Haidt is quick to point out that mistrust and fear of the next generation has been going on pretty much forever – he notes how even Socrates had his “turn that racket down!” moments with his next generation – but this is something different. This is less fear of Generation Z than fear for them.

Indeed, Haidt mentions that the same research that has shown a spike in mental health issues with today’s youth has also shown that they tend to be significantly more responsible, more empathetic, more environmentally conscious, more accepting of diversity, and more likely to avoid destructive behaviours like taking drugs, unsafe promiscuity, and underage drinking, than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Rabbi Sacks, too, ends his book on a hopeful note by referencing his own extremely positive experiences talking to high school students for a BBC programme he was putting together about morality (which is excellent, by the way, and can be found on your favourite podcast app for free).

Ironically, social media is, undoubtedly, at least partly responsible for these positive changes and even more ironically, it is many of the same things that are so destructive about social media that are specifically responsible for exactly those positive changes. The constant connection to other people and to world events can’t help but create a generation of kids that are more “clued in” than their parents.

The problem, however, is that though social media presents itself as a simulation of the real world, it isn’t the real world. It isn’t even a good simulation of it. I doubt there’s a psychologist alive who would claim that talking to people via social media is any sort of substitute for real-life social interactions, when apparently something like 90% of communication is non-verbal. Texting and posting on social media is wonderful for those of us hardcore introverts who express ourselves far better through writing than through speech, but even those of us who need lots of time alone require at least some genuine social interaction for the good of our mental health.

A few months of hard lockdown during this pandemic aside, though, kids do spend a lot of time with their peers at school or in various extracurricular activities. They may date less and socialise less than previous generations, but surely not enough to explain their high rates of depression and anxiety?

Toxic communication

If only the answer was as simple as getting your kids to go out and play more. It’s part of the answer, to be sure, but only a small part. The biggest issue with social media interactions isn’t that they aren’t as effective or rewarding as their real-world counterparts, it’s that they contain a toxicity that directly contribute to extremely low self-esteem, high levels of anxiety, and crippling despair, desperation, and depression.

To best understand this toxicity, you only need to look at the fact that this mental health crisis has been much harder on teenage girls than it has been on boys. Haidt explains that so much of this is because of the different ways that boys and girls deal with aggression. Boys and girls are actually equally aggressive on average, but while boys tend to express their aggression physically, girls do so socially. In terms of technology, this has led to boys spending a lot of time playing violent video games to deal with their own normal teenage aggression, while girls do the same by spending more time on social media.

After years of blaming violent video games for all of society’s ills, it turns out that they’re not only much less harmful than previously believed, they’re actually fairly healthy ways for teenagers to blow off some steam. Social media, however, is very much not. As Haidt explains, boys don’t walk away from playing video games berating themselves over what they could have done better or what other players think of them. The same certainly can’t be said about social media, and, though boys obviously use Facebook or Instagram plenty, they don’t have quite the same cache with them as with their female contemporaries.

On social media, after all, the face you put on is everything. Self-worth in the social media sphere comes down to the “follows” and the “likes” of perfect strangers and how your life compares to the carefully curated and often entirely artificial “stories” or profile pictures that are put up by peers, to say nothing of fabulously glamorous celebrities and – shudder – “influencers”.

Did you post the most flattering photo of yourself? Did you leave the wittiest or most heartfelt comments on a popular kid’s post? Do you care too much or too little about the big issue of the day? Did you call out the right people with sufficient venom for not being “woke” enough?

It’s exhausting and it only gets worse once your virtual presence and “real life” start to collide. Social media, by its very nature, reflects the social hierarchies that have been part of teenage life forever. Popular kids in the real world tend to be popular on social media. Kids that are bullied in the real world are bullied online too.

School can be horrible for many teenagers, but at least, in the past, they had a chance to get away from the teasing, bullying, and shaming. But now, not only do their awful school experiences follow them home, they are often magnified significantly on social media. Bullies are given free rein on sites like Facebook and the lack of facing their prey in person means that whatever guilt they may experience from a personal confrontation evaporates online.

Is there any hope?

The obvious question, then, is now what? What are parents, educators and young people themselves to do in the face of this ubiquitous, inescapable new technology. Ignoring it isn’t really an option because Pandora’s box hasn’t so much been opened as it has been utterly demolished, and not preparing your kids for something that will probably only become a greater influence as they grow older may not be the smartest strategy either.

The good news is that though the research done by the likes of Haidt and Twenge is alarming, it deals with general trends rather than individuals. After all, you’re hopefully looking at your perfectly well-adjusted, happy (if, presumably, moody) teenager, and wondering just what on earth all this fuss is about. Just because mental health trends suggest that more kids will struggle with more severe issues because of social media, doesn’t mean that your kid will. Or even that most kids will. Also, though persuasive, their findings have been challenged by other social scientists who see much less of a link between social media and depression and anxiety in adolescents.

Regardless, parents today clearly face numerous challenges that their own parents never had to deal with and, in some respects at least, it’s probably harder to be a teenager now than in, say, the 1990s. I would never be so presumptuous as to offer any parenting tips to anyone, but it’s clear that these new challenges require all new levels of engagement by parents and an unprecedented level of open communication between parents and their children.

Social media has many good qualities too, as we’ve established, but perhaps none more so than the fact that their negatives qualities might force far more positive solutions. And for that, at least, we can be thankful.

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