A look at social media and how it impacts teens.
BY GEORGE BERNARD ’23, SAFIA MALHOTRA ’24 AND IRIS MARK ’23
The year 1997 saw the birth of what many believe to be the first social media platform: Six Degrees. Six Degrees was a social networking site used by millions of people, who signed up with email addresses and could create personal networks following their registration. The social media site was based on the six degrees of separation theory, which speculates that any person on the planet can be connected to another through a chain of 6 or fewer social connections.
In the past few decades, social media has expanded to become an integral part of many people’s daily lives. Approximately 4.8 billion people are registered on various social media platforms, and the average person spends upwards of 2.5 hours on social media platforms every day.
The Pew Research Center began tracking social media adoption in 2005, when 5% of American adults used at least one social media platform. By 2011 that share had risen to 50% of all Americans, and today 72% of the American public uses some form of social media.
Surveys suggest that more than 90% of teenagers aged 13 through 17 are active on social media. Pew Research Center found that about a third of teens (36%) say they spend too much time on social media, while 54% of teens expressed that giving up social media would be difficult. Nearly all teenagers (95%) have access to a smartphone, and 97% say they use the internet “almost constantly.”
The prominence of social media has fueled debate globally, as the consequences of the relatively new phenomenon remain unknown. Lawmakers and scientists alike are attempting to understand said consequences, particularly amongst youth.
Studies that date even from the early 2000s, when social media was just emerging into the consumer world, show that attention span, as well as the ability to focus and retain information, is affected by social media use. An article published through New York University in 2010 stated that for students frequently using social networking sites, the “assumption is that attention will suffer as a result of the multi-tasking required.” However, this is not new information. At UAHS, students and staff are aware of the potentially damaging affects of social media, so the question that now remains is, what are the long-term consequences of such increased stimulation?
During adolescence, major changes take place within the brain, specifically within cognitive and social-affective regions, which means that the teenage years are a time of increased social processing. A study published in November 2022 from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, found that ADHD is associated with problematic use of social media. This is not to say that increased screen time causes the disorder, but rather it creates ADHD-like symptoms and children who do have ADHD are at an increased risk of developing a screen addiction.
“I don’t have empirical data to support [a decrease in attention spans], but I’ve been in this business for 20 years [and] the dawn of social media kind of correlates with a lot of ADHD diagnoses and attention kind of issues, so [I’m] just putting two and two together myself,” Allan Banks, a UAHS counselor, said.
However, Banks is less concerned about attention spans and more concerned that “kids can’t communicate with each other effectively face to face,” he said. “They fear conflict, they avoid any situations that are going to make them anxious and that concerns me more than [attention spans].”
This is especially prevalent with platforms like TikTok, which usually involves hours of endless scrolling.
“What I see [when] I look out my window here, half of [students] have [their phones] in their face, and its mindless stuff.” Banks said.
Due to the addictiveness of social media, many teachers feel that students are wasting time on their phones that otherwise would be spent learning. English teacher Matt Toohey is one of these teachers.
“With the advent of TikTok and the obsession with constantly seeking mindless entertainment, students have become unable to focus for long periods of time,” Toohey said. “If you were to look at the reading assignments I gave 10, 15 years ago, I could easily expect students to read a full chapter, 20 or so pages a night, and now I can barely expect a third of a class to handle that. Many kids are simply not reading. It is not because they can’t read, it’s because they are too distracted, not able to focus, and they constantly need to look at their phones.”
Doug Wilson is an intervention specialist at UAHS who sees everyday how social media affects the students he works with.
“The thing that is concerning to me about TikTok, where you’re just flipping from one video to the next video and it is curated, [is that] it’s very easy to kind of get sucked into the zone where time is passing and you’re not doing much of anything productive,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s just teenagers. I find myself doing that with social media where I’m telling my sons to get off their iPads, while I’m looking at Twitter on my phone. I think that adults can be hypocritical about those things. But it is a little concerning. I think finding a good balance with that is important, there’s benefits and pros to social media.”
Meanwhile, other teachers are noticing such changes in the classroom.
“I’ve been teaching for 27 years. So that means from the beginning of the internet to today,” Toohey said. “It used to be that kids would struggle trying to hide playing games on their phones, but now it’s just the constant need to Snapchat, the constant need to check Instagram. And that compounded by wanting to play mindless games on their phones just to be distracted — it’s really an epidemic.”
If it is an epidemic, it’s an epidemic that is here to stay. Social media use is increasing, as well as access to digital devices, even among kindergarten- and pre-school-aged children. That is why Wilson believes it is also up to teachers to adapt new norms.
“If teaching methods are no longer quite as effective, then it’s our job as teachers to evolve and develop new strategies, so I don’t know what specifically those would be, or what they would look like, but this building is full of excellent teachers and I think its our job — our duty — to continually try to grow and learn, and to find new ways to connect with kids,” he said.
On March 23, 2023, Shou Zi Chou, the chief executive of TikTok, testified in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in a hearing titled “TikTok: How Congress Can Safeguard American Data Privacy and Protect Children from Online Harms.” The hearing lasted over five hours, with lawmakers questioning Chou about the potential influence China holds over the social media platform. This concern stemmed from the fact that the company is owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance, raising concern over the app’s power over Americans.
Lawmakers repeatedly spoke about their unease over the potential connection that ByteDance maintains with the Chinese Communist Party. That unease had been amplified by comments made by prominent officials in recent weeks.
“[TikTok] allows [China] to manipulate content, and if they want to, to use it for influence operations,” according to FBI Director Christopher Wray, “All of these things are in the hands of a government that doesn’t share our values and that has a mission that’s very much at odds with what’s in the best interests of the United States. That should concern us.”
“TikTok is a Trojan horse the Chinese Communist Party can use to influence what Americans see, hear, and ultimately think” Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) said.
While the Biden Administration and Congress mull over options for restricting access to TikTok on a federal level, many state governments have taken action. According to Insider, 27 states, including Ohio, have issued complete or partial bans on using TikTok on government devices.
On Jan. 8, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed Executive Order 2023-03D, banning the use of any social media platform owned by a Chinese company on a device owned or operated by the state government. The primary reason that spurred the decision was privacy concerns.
“Under China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, businesses located in China are required to assist the Chinese government in intelligence work, including data sharing with the Chinese Communist Party,” according to the order.
The fear of inadvertently giving sensitive information to China has been at least partly validated by extensive investigative reporting by BuzzFeed News, which reported on leaked audio from over 80 internal meetings at TikTok in June 2022. They show that despite TikTok executives telling the lawmakers and the public that American’s data was not accessible to employees based in China, Chinese engineers accessed private data about American users on multiple occasions for a number of years.
At the hearing, Chou fought back against the idea that TikTok or ByteDance is a puppet of the Chinese government. He explained actions the company has taken to secure American’s data and plans to strengthen it further.
“Our approach has never been to dismiss or trivialize any of these concerns, we have addressed them with real action,” Chou said in his opening remarks. “That’s what we’ve been doing for the last two years, building what amounts to a firewall that seals off protected US user data from unauthorized foreign access. The bottom line is that American data stored [is] on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel. We call this initiative Project Texas.”
Project Texas aims to have a subsidiary company registered in the U.S. own and manage all operations for American users and store all data on Oracle servers in Texas, hence the name. They also say that the American subsidiary will be run by a board of directors with a majority being US citizens.
On Mar. 7, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced the RESTRICT Act (S.686) into the senate. The proposed law would allow the Department of Commerce to designate a country as a “foreign adversary” and compels the department to prohibit any “information and communications technology products and services” when there is “an undue or unacceptable risk to U.S. national security or the safety of U.S. persons.” It also gives Congress the power to override the department when it attempts to label a country as a “foreign adversary.”
While there is increasing and bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for banning TikTok, the proposed law remains controversial, despite the Biden Administration announcing its support for the bill.
“I think we should ban TikTok. I’m a little bit more concerned with the RESTRICT Act” said Senator JD Vance (R-OH), “One group of people is very worried that it’s too weak on the TikTok issue, another group of people is very worried that you’re creating, effectively, a PATRIOT Act for the digital age.”
The PATRIOT Act is a highly controversial law passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks that greatly expanded the government’s ability to surveil ordinary Americans. Some fear that the proposed law would set a dangerous precedent for allowing the government to infringe upon the right to free speech based on a vague national security need.
While a broad national ban would be a major action, the U.S. would not be the first country to do so. According to Insider, India banned TikTok in 2020 after a dispute with China. Additionally, Australia, France, The Netherlands, New Zealand, the U.K., Canada and Taiwan have banned TikTok on government devices due to security concerns.
Most social media platforms automatically organize content based on how likely each individual is to like it and interact with it. This process is known as an algorithm, and algorithms are tailored to each individual user in order to engage their attention for an extended period of time, and increase app usage.
TikTok’s “For You” page is an example of a successful personalized algorithm. Each TikTok user has a personalized “For You” Page that provides users with a specifically curated feed of content. Algorithmic curation provides an easy and efficient way for users to access information and content they want; however, this can have adverse effects. The lack of diversity in content consumed by social media users can be dangerous for teenagers who are easily influenced by outside opinions.
By only presenting information that aligns with an individual’s past preferences and behaviors, personalized algorithms can limit exposure to alternative viewpoints, which can result in a narrow and polarized understanding of the world. Additionally, curated algorithms can aid in the reinforcement of incorrect or misleading information.
“I think sometimes this constant input of information all day long is overwhelming, so I think it can make you lose track of what your goals are or what you are doing in the moment, [it] puts too much on your plate, so to speak,” Wilson said.
Social media can be particularly dangerous when it becomes addicting. Social media is intended to be addictive, as developers want users to spend as much time on their apps as possible in order for them to make a profit from advertisers.
“Algorithms, the way that phone games and social media are set up, are meant to make you obsessed and addicted to what’s buzzing on your phone,” Toohey said. “I’m guilty, you know, sometimes at my kid’s lacrosse game or wrestling match I look at my phone for no reason, because it’s there.”
Using social media can lead to physical and psychological addiction due to the fact that it triggers the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in neurological and physiological functioning. Humans also release dopamine when doing things such as eating, exercising and sleeping, and are naturally hard-wired to seek out behaviors that release dopamine.
“We are now so caught up in wanting to be a part of social media that we’re not living normal lives,” Toohey said. “To the point where it’s so excessive that we can’t live normally.”
Many social media users experiencd increased dopamine levels when engaging with social media platforms. When users receive positive notifications such as likes, comments, or reposts, the brain releases elevated levels of dopamine. This trains the brain to expect dopamine releases while using social media and reinforces the need to satisfy that feeling through further social media usage. This creates a cycle known as the “dopamine loop” fueled by motivation, reward, and reinforcement, causing users to spend extended amounts of time chasing dopamine highs.
Social media has a variety of impacts on adolescents’ mental health due to the control it has over their everyday lives.
Additionally, it encourages social isolation by limiting direct contact with peers, and can heighten feelings of derealization and encourage constant comparison to peers, which can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.
A study conducted by Common Sense Media demonstrated that teens exhibiting depressive symptoms were nearly twice as likely to say they used social media almost constantly, while one-third of teens with depression reported constant social media use, as compared to 18% of teens who did not have depressive symptoms.
The relative novelty of social media means that scientists have not yet discovered the long-term effects of social media usage; however, there is a consistent relationship between social media and teen depression.
“The number of hours students are spending just staring at their phones is really, really scary,” Toohey said. “They can’t stop looking. They don’t know what to do with their hands, their eyes… it’s rewired our brains.”