“In the next decade we may see more young people who know just the right emoji for a situation—but not the right facial expression.”
Fancying myself an educator, I’m very much concerned with several fundamental issues related to the craft: How does the physical and social world of kids affect their development? What will the economic landscape be like for the upcoming generation? What skills do our kids need to know to lead self-fulfilled lives? What is the relationship between the actual and hidden curricula at schools? What activities are responsible for establishing desired behavioral outcomes? These questions and more are, and will continue to be, compelling to any educator worth his or her salt. One of the most sobering questions for me these days, however, is: What is the effect of social media use on the current generation of students, specifically pre-teens and teens?
In researching this topic, I came across some pretty unsettling data that provides some food for thought. In his book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, NYU professor and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the rise in rates of depression and anxiety among American adolescents in the past decade. The internet generation, also called “Generation Z” or “iGen,” is composed of individuals born from 1995, and is the first generation to grow up with the internet at their fingertips. In other words, it’s “the first generation that spent (and is now spending) its formative teen years immersed in the giant social and commercial experiment of social media.” He claims that as a result kids are now growing up much more slowly, spending much more time alone, interacting with screens. He adds, “the combination of helicopter parenting, fears for children’s safety, and the allure of screens means that members of iGen spend much less time than previous generations did going out with friends while unsupervised by an adult.” The consequences?
Based on data accumulated by professor Jean Twenge from San Diego State University (and author of iGen), Haidt presents some interesting graphs to illustrate the rise in rates of depression and anxiety as a result of social media use. The first graph, based on data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, shows the rising number of adolescent girls (aged 12-17) who claim to have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. Note how the gap between adolescent girls and boys remained fairly steady in the early 2000s, but widened from 2011. Now, “roughly one out of every five girls [in the United States] reported symptoms that met the criteria for having experienced a major depressive episode in the previous year.”
It’s true that the more and more people are using the language of therapy and mental illness, and that seeking out therapy and receiving a diagnosis has becomes far easier these days. Is the above data merely a result of the overuse and over-application of mental health labels? Haidt denies this, explaining that the annual rate of teen suicide (aged 15-19) has risen alarmingly, and that “compared to the 2000s, nearly twice as many teenage girls now end their own lives.” The following graph, based on the CDC’s Fatal Injury Reports (1999-2016), shows a 70% increase in the rates for females and a 25% increase for males.
To confirm this increase in mental illness in teens, Haidt presents a recent study that looked at non-fatal self-inflicted injuries. These are cases in which teens were admitted to hospital emergency rooms because of self-harm (cutting themselves with a razor, banging their heads into walls, or drinking poison). Although the rates for boys across age ranges remained steady, the rates for girls began to climb much higher, beginning in 2010. The rate for girls (aged 15-19), for example, was at around 420 per 100,000 in 2001, but rose to 630 per 100,000 in 2015. More alarmingly, the rate for younger girls (aged 10-14) rose even more quickly, nearly tripling from roughly 110 per 100,000 in 2009 to 318 per 100,000 in 2015.
So what happens when this Generation Z goes to college? The first members started arriving on college campuses from September 2013, with the eldest members graduating in 2017. “These are precisely the years in which the new culture of safetyism seemed to emerge from out of nowhere” and “the years in which college mental health clinics found themselves suddenly overwhelmed by new demand.” Confirming this, Haidt presents a graph by the Higher Education Research Institute illustrating the percentage of college students responding “yes” to the question “Do you have [a] psychological disorder (depression, etc.).” Between 2012 and 2016, the rate for males and females increased by 126% and 150%, respectively. Now, one out of every seven women at universities in the States now thinks of herself as having a psychological disorder (compared to 1 in 18 in the last year for Millennials.
So why is it mostly girls who suffer? Theories about this vary, but Haidt provides some possible reasons for the disparity. Because the social life of girls revolves around inclusion and exclusion more so than for boys, the “curated” nature of social media seems to affect them more adversely. This increases what is often called FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) or FOBLO (Fear Of Being Left Out), since both girls and boys are scrolling through hundreds of carefully selected images presenting all kinds of activities that they’re not participating in. In other words, the more you use social media, the more opportunities you’ll have of feeling excluded and lonely. Additionally, social media bombards people with artificially enhanced images that can make them feel insecure about their own appearance. Not just professionally photoshopped fashion advertisements, but also apps that provide easy-to-apply “filters” that enhance the size of facial features or smooth out skin. Another theory posits that boys and girls are aggressive in different ways, and the nature of social media predominantly serves to enhance the bullying of girls. According to research by psychologist Nicki Crick, “boys are more physically aggressive – more likely to shove and hit one another, and they show a greater interest in stories and movies about physical aggression. Girls, in contrast, are more ‘relationally’ aggressive; they try to hurt their rivals’ relationships, reputations, and social status…,” using social media to intentionally include or exclude others. Plenty of theories have been offered to explain the situation, but in the end the statistical results remain worrisome.
The above discussion sounds like a lot of fear mongering; that is not the intention. Social media offers many benefits to teens and adults alike. The technology is hugely relevant to our lives and work, helping us stay organized, wind down after work, and of course strengthen our social relationships. “But it is also the greatest enabler of relational aggression since the invention of language, and the evidence available today suggests that girls’ mental health has suffered as a result.” What can you do to support your child through this difficult phase in their life? Consider implementing the following school-recommended guidelines for the safe use of devices, and start a dialogue with other parents and the school.
- Students first get a smartphone on loan from their parents.
- They must successfully pass a 1-year trial period during which they must demonstrate the responsible use of the phone.
- Phones and laptops should be out of the bedroom by 9 p.m.
- After the 1-year trial period, the phone can become theirs. However, periodic parental checks may continue for 3 months before they get full access.
- If the child, at any point, suffers lower grades at school, or is involved in a cyber-bullying incident, the device should be removed as a consequence for a period of 1-3 months.
- Ideally, the home’s personal computer should be located in the living room, or other supervised space.
- Legal age restrictions for apps and online services should be followed.
- Whenever possible, parental controls and passwords should be used to limit the child’s access to the digital world, until they prove their responsibility and maturity.
- The child must sign a contract stating the above terms (or other terms discussed and agreed upon by the family), with clear consequences that follow rule infractions.
- Consider holding off on giving your child a smartphone until they reach high school age.
+ The Coddling of the American Mind (Amazon)
+ iGen (Amazon)
+ iGen: The Smartphone Generation | Jean Twenge (Ted Talk)
+ Joe Rogan & Jonathan Haidt – Social Media is Giving Kids Anxiety (from The Joe Rogan Experience podcast)