Social media platforms are being flooded with pictures and videos of children either dancing to their favorite pop song or posting selfies with their besties. Although this is the content they post, that does not mean that this type of content is the only that they are seeing. To combat youth using social media, many sites have a 13+ age restriction, or they have moderators that constantly skim the site for harmful content; but it is no surprise that it is possible, and rather easy, to bypass these guidelines. The pandemic opened the door for many adolescents to heavily rely on social media. For many, social media was the only place that people were able to interact with the outside world during the pandemic, but once social distancing ended people did not put their phones down. Additionally, since many parents saw the increased usage as the “new normal,” many children were given unrestricted access to their electronic devices. Although social media can spread information and connect people in a way that has never been seen before, it also negatively affects children and preteens that are exposed to it by negatively impacting their mental health and self image.
Since many children and adolescents were quarantining and social distancing in 2020 and 2021, the only way they could contact their friends was by using social media and other messaging platforms via their phone or other device; At the time, many were thankful that they were able to stay connected to others during such an unprecedented time, but the constant connectivity has negatively influenced children and teens. Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, a correspondent for NPR’s Science Desk reports in her research that the social media usage of teenagers has skyrocketed since 2009; “In 2009, only about half of teens used social media every day, Twenge reports. In 2017, 85% used it daily. By 2022, 95% of teens said they use some social media, and about a third say they use it constantly”. Excess social media usage can be harmful to children because it can impact their social skills or expose them to content that is inappropriate for their age group. A third of teens in the study admitted that they spend most of their free time on their phone. The truth is that social media and the internet are not reflective of real life, but many adolescents likely believe that they are. What they may not understand is that their favorite content creator picks and chooses what they put on the internet, and what they post usually is a glamorized version of their life. The unrealistic lifestyles of celebrities on the internet can make others feel inferior because their kitchen is not as clean or their car is not as nice. Since humans are naturally competitive in nature, it can be assumed that celebrities do compete with each other to have the best Instagram feed. The average person online may feel depressed after seeing content posted by their favorite celebrities because they do not have the same luxurious or aesthetically pleasing lifestyles that their idols have. Even worse than this, if adolescents have access to a search engine, they have access to almost everything on the internet; including but not limited to cat videos, pornography, and other graphic content- all within 10 seconds of the initial search. It is no secret that children are easily influenced and affected by their environment, so it is obvious that the content that they see online can and will affect them mentally. This is seen mostly in adolescents that spend a considerable amount of time on the internet; “A longitudinal cohort study of U.S. adolescents aged 12–15 (n=6,595)… found that adolescents who spent more than 3 hours per day on social media faced double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes including symptoms of depression and anxiety” (Riehm qtd. in Social Media)Top of Form. Adolescents get most of their news and information from social media, so it is no surprise that they are being affected, either positively or negatively, by what they are seeing on the internet. It should also be noted that the harm of social media does not only come from websites that adolescents and teens should not be using, but it is usually found on the websites that they are using. For example, a teen can go onto TikTok or Twitter and search “Israel hostage crisis” and see graphic photos and images posted by those living through the events in real time. Although this type of journalism is extremely valuable and provides the general public with unfiltered current events, it is oftentimes inappropriate for younger users. These graphic images can trigger younger viewers that have not consented to viewing the content, and after a period of time it can desensitize them to images, topics, and scenarios that they should not be desensitized to.
Another problem regarding adolescents and their excessive internet usage and social media is that it is affecting their body images. Many brands and social media influencers are portraying an unrealistic body standard by editing and photoshopping photos of women and men alike. For example, in 2014 Victoria’s Secret released an ad for their new bra ‘Body’ which had multiple of their models posing in the bra and underwear with the caption “Perfect Body”. The women in the photo were very tall and thin, and they all had a very similar body type. After public outrage, the slogan was removed from Victoria’s Secret’s website, but it remained on advertisements in their stores (TodayShow). It is very harmful for children and adolescents to see these advertisements on social media. It portrays to girls that the “perfect body” is one that is very slim and tall, and it sets an unrealistic body standard. This is extremely problematic because it is almost impossible for many to achieve this specific body type, and teenagers may develop an eating disorder or depression as a result. A survey performed by Christine Byrne, a journalist from Everyday Health, reports that, “Self-consciousness about appearance was more common among teens (73 percent of teen girls and 69 percent of teen boys) than children ages 8 to 12; although 57 percent of the younger girls and 49 percent of the younger boys also reported self-consciousness about their appearance”. It is disheartening that children as young as 8 years old are self-conscious of their appearance because that is a learned trait at that age. Before puberty, boys and girls are very similar physically, and self-consciousness usually begins when their bodies begin to change and they look different than, or viewed differently by, their peers. Though the article was unable to find a causal relationship between the internet and children being self-conscious, it is not a stretch whatsoever to suggest that they may be related. Children are constantly seeing photos of teens and adults online and wish that they could look like them, but since they are children their dream is unattainable. Additionally, the self-consciousness of adolescents is not just limited to their body image but also their sexual identity. Allison Chase, a clinical psychologist and certified eating disorder specialist reports that, “young people who are exploring their gender or sexual identities might feel distressed about their appearance if it doesn’t match up with the societal ideal of what someone with their gender or sexual identity is supposed to look like” (Chase qtd. in Alberts) Even though it is 2023, there are still hate comments under most posts online that show a non-heterosexual relationship. It is likely very anxiety inducing for young people to see others that they identify similarly to experiencing hate online for what they look like or their sexual orientation. Though, that is not to say that LGTBQ+ representation online is harmful, it is actually the contrary. Representation online allows teens and young people to see that what they are going through is normal, and they are not the only person struggling with their identity. The problem is that children are seeing this content, and the hate that comes with it, and they may not have the cognitive ability to understand that hate speech online does not equivocate that the content is harmful, or vice versa; often, what children initially see is what they believe, so it is important that they are protected from this content for at least a few years until they mature emotionally.
Social media and the internet are arguable the best inventions in the past half century, but that does not mean that they do not come with risks, especially to children and adolescents. Social media can affect young people’s mental health due to mature content being present on almost all platforms. Additionally, adolescents may also struggle with their body image, starting at a very young age, due to advertisements and other content promoting unrealistic body types and photoshop.
Alberts, Nuna, et al. “What Are Eating Disorders? Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention.” EverydayHealth.Com, www.everydayhealth.com/eating-disorders/guide/. Accessed 29 Oct. 2023.
Byrne, Christine, et al. “Data Suggests a Majority of Kids Struggle with Body Image.” EverydayHealth.Com, 22 Sept. 2022, www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/survey-suggests-two-thirds-of-kids-may-struggle-with-body-image/.
Doucleff, Michaeleen. “The Truth about Teens, Social Media and the Mental Health Crisis.” NPR, NPR, 25 Apr. 2023, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2023/04/25/1171773181/social-media-teens-mental-health.
Social Media Has Both Positive and Negative Impacts on Children And …, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK594763/. Accessed 30 Oct. 2023.
TodayShow. “Victoria’s Secret Changes ‘perfect Body’ Ad Slogan in Wake of Backlash.” TODAY.Com, TODAY, 6 Nov. 2014, www.today.com/health/victorias-secret-changes-perfect-body-ad-slogan-wake-backlash-1D80271468.