To the Teacher
At its core, social media holds out the promise of connection. A key idea behind Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other platforms is that we can create rich networks of friends, receive frequent updates from people in our lives, and build a sense of community.
On sites such as Facebook, it is common for someone to have hundreds of “friends.” Yet, in reality, the experience does not always live up to the hype. Despite this ever-present promise of community, many people feel isolated and alone. Although people may have hundreds or even thousands of online “friends,” they may have few actual people in real life that they can rely on. All of this raises the question, is social media strengthening our communities, or is spending time on our phones and computers actually harming our ability to connect in person?
This lesson consists of two readings. The first reading explores the experience of connection online, asking whether or not social media helps make us feel more connected to one another. The second reading examines the data regarding how social media affects our mental health, looking at studies of the possible positive and negative effects of social media usage, especially for young people. Questions for discussion follow each reading.
Note: This lesson is Part 1 of a series of lessons on social media.
- Part 1: Does Social Media Make Us More or Less Connected?
- Part 2: Social Media and the Future of Democracy
- Part 3: Can We Protect Our Privacy on Social Media?
Ask students to share one word or reaction they have when they hear the phrase “social media.”
Alternatively, make a visual web of their reactions by writing the term “social media” in the center of the board, circling it, then asking students for their associations with the phrase. Write down students’ associations without comment in the space surrounding the circled phrase, and connect their words with a line to the center. Once responses have slowed, step back and look at the web.
Ask students: What patterns do you see here? What does this web say about our reactions to social media?
Tell students that today we’ll read and discuss two short pieces about social media and its impact, both positive and negative.
Experiencing Connection, On and Off-Line
At its core, social media holds out the promise of connection. A key idea behind Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other platforms is that we can create rich networks of friends, receive frequent updates from people in our lives, and build a sense of community. On sites such as Facebook, it is not uncommon for someone to have hundreds of “friends.” Yet, in reality, the experience does not always live up to the hype. Despite this ever-present promise of community, many people feel isolated and alone. Although people may have hundreds or even thousands of online “friends,” they may have few actual people in real life that they can rely on.
All of this raises the question, is social media strengthening our communities, or is spending time on our phones and computers actually harming our ability to connect in person?
One commonly held view holds that spending too much time on social media is detrimental. Many influential people—ranging from Pope Francis, to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to actress and singer Selena Gomez—have warned that overuse of social media can be harmful and isolating. In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, Michelle Obama stated, “We have to get off the phone and knock on doors and talk to each other face to face…. We can’t rely on the internet to tell us about the world.”
For reasons like these, people of all ages have begun limiting their time on social media and focusing instead on building relationships in real life. In a 2017 article, Teen Vogue’s Beauty and Health Director Jessica Matlin documented the increase in young people logging off. She writes about a student named Faith, 17, who moved from a Philadelphia suburb to a new school in New York City. Faith said that it was hard to make friends. She felt insecure about this, so she used her phone to share stories to make it seem to her friends back home that she was making lots of friends and having a great time. “In reality, I was struggling,” she said. The story goes on to tell Faith’s story since then:
Now that [Faith has] found her own crew, she’s grown more skeptical about social media. She also doesn’t feel compelled to get it all on film. At a Coldplay show, she sang instead of Snapped (“I’d rather enjoy the music”), and sitting down to a recent dinner, she and her friends piled their phones in the middle of the table (“It made the night so much better”)....
“Young adults are beginning to take a more mindful approach to social media,” says Jacqueline Nesi, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies teens and social media. “This may explain the rise in apps like SelfControl and Anti-Social.” (Both prevent you from falling into a Facebook hole.) And that no-phones-at-dinner policy? Nesi says we are likely to see it popping up on more tables….
Ananda, 17, had the kind of Insta-following that any start-up would kill for. Before long, it became a total chore. What started as a place to share vegan recipes and cute outfits quickly became her “brand,” something that demanded daily upkeep. Her fans constantly direct-messaged her with praise and invites to meet up.
“It was really sweet,” she says. “At the same time, it was so time- and energy-consuming—it wasn’t how I want to build friendships.” As she started posting less, her following dropped. (“That gave me anxiety,” she says.) Finally, she just closed her account. “I do miss it, but I have time to spend with my real friends.”
“Social media relationships aren’t real relationships,” says Faith. “It’s always weird when you see someone who follows you and you follow back, but you don’t say ‘hi’ to each other when you see them in real life.”
Despite such testimonies to the benefits of taking breaks from social media, not everyone agrees that online community is inherently unhealthy—or that offline friendships should count as being a valuable part on one’s “real life,” while online connections are disregarded. For years, young people have maintained that social media can provide real connection. In a 2018 article for The Washington Post, Common Sense Media parenting editor Caroline Knorr offered five benefits of social media. She wrote:
For a few years, many teens have been saying that social media — despite its flaws — is mostly positive. And new research is shedding light on the good things that can happen when kids connect, share and learn online. As kids begin to use tools such as Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and even YouTube in earnest, they’re learning the responsibility that comes with the power to broadcast to the world….
It lets them do good. Twitter, Facebook and other large social networks expose kids to important issues and people from all over the world. Kids realize they have a voice they didn’t have before and are doing everything from crowdfunding social justice projects to anonymously tweeting positive thoughts….
It strengthens friendships. Studies, including Common Sense Media’s “Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives” and the Pew Research Center’s “Teens, Technology and Friendships” show that social media helps teenagers make friends and keep them.
It can offer a sense of belonging. While heavy social media use can isolate kids, a study conducted by Griffith University and the University of Queensland in Australia found that although American teens have fewer friends than their historical counterparts, they are less lonely than teens in past decades. They report feeling less isolated and have become more socially adept, partly because of an increase in technology use....
Online acceptance — whether a kid is interested in an unusual subject that isn’t considered cool or is grappling with sexual identity — can validate a marginalized child…. One example occurred on a Minecraft forum on Reddit when an entire online community used voice-conferencing software to talk a teenager out of committing suicide.
Such arguments suggest that social media use can have both positive and negative aspects. Whether we experience it as helpful or harmful has a lot to do with how we engage, who we relate with, and what boundaries we decide to set for ourselves in our daily lives. Instead of passively accepting the platforms as they are, we can be critical in how we engage, recognizing that if social media offers the promise of community, it is a community that we must create for ourselves.
- How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
- What are your reactions to Faith’s story about cutting back on social media and feeling closer to friends? Does her story resonate with you – or not?
- Have you ever agreed to stow your phones when you’re having a get-together with friends? If so, what effect did it have?
- If you use social media, do you take breaks from it? Why or why not?
- What are your thoughts about the five benefits of social media cited in the Washington Post? Do they resonate with you? Why or why not?
- What are some arguments that social media decreases meaningful connection? Have you experienced any of these trends in your community?
- What are some arguments that social increases connection and has positive benefits? Do these ring true in your experience?
- Do you see generational differences in how different people look at the appropriate use of social media platforms? How would you characterize how your views might differ from those of your parents or teachers?
The Research on Social Media and Mental Health
Reports about people’s experiences on social media are often anecdotal. They rely on individual stories about how a given user might feel. But can we get a bigger picture take on social media’s overall effect? What does the research say about social media’s impact on our mental well-being?
In an article in the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic entitled “Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?,” San Diego State psychology professor Jean Twenge examined some this research. Focusing most of her attention on the more negative impacts of social media on mental health, Twenge generated a media firestorm with her portrait of how social media increases our isolation. She wrote:
The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone….
Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones….
The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried eighth- and 10th-graders since 1991. The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including nonscreen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web. The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.
There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time….
Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan. (That’s much more than the risk related to, say, watching TV.)
Twenge’s article, shared by many concerned parents, prompted a wave of responses from other psychologists. Many noted that the research is more nuanced than the uproar around the inflammatory article made it seem. In a 2017 article for Psychology Today entitled “No, Smartphones are Not Destroying a Generation,” Assumption College psychology professor Sara Rose Cavanaugh questioned whether smartphones and social media were purely negative in their effects.
Emerging evidence indicates that like every other question psychologists can think to ask about human behavior, screen use and its association with psychological well-being varies based on a multitude of contextual and personal variables—for instance, how you use media, when you use it, and what else is going on in your life… [One study] by Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein uses a careful design that takes into account these sorts of factors and concludes that "moderate use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful and may be advantageous in a connected world."
Nowhere is Twenge's bias more obvious to me than in some research that she actually does review but then casts aside as seemingly irrelevant to her thesis... In the introduction to the piece she notes that this generation has sharply lower rates of alcohol use, teen pregnancies, unprotected sex, smoking, and car accidents than previous generations. This is what a destroyed generation looks like?
Moreover, there is good reason to think that smartphones and social media may have positive effects as well as negative effects. Routinely feeling connected to your social peers could have beneficial effects.... For instance, teens can find other teens interested in the same social movements, connect with teens across the globe on interests like music and fashion, and feel embedded in a social network filled with meaning.
Twenge herself acknowledges that social media may have contributed a decrease in some behaviors that have traditionally made parents and guardians anxious, writing that “Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.”
A final point to consider in the debate over social media and mental health is that the platforms themselves have agendas--since companies like Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook make more money when people use them more, regardless of the impact on happiness or mental health. In a 2018 article for the BBC, investigative reporter Hilary Andersson argued that social media companies are deliberately addicting users to their products for financial gain.
"Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting" [said former Mozilla and Jawbone employee Aza Raskin.]
In 2006 Mr Raskin, a leading technology engineer himself, designed infinite scroll, one of the features of many apps that is now seen as highly habit forming. At the time, he was working for Humanized - a computer user-interface consultancy.
Infinite scroll allows users to endlessly swipe down through content without clicking.
"If you don't give your brain time to catch up with your impulses," Mr Raskin said, "you just keep scrolling."
He said the innovation kept users looking at their phones far longer than necessary. Mr Raskin said he had not set out to addict people and now felt guilty about it. But, he said, many designers were driven to create addictive app features by the business models of the big companies that employed them. "In order to get the next round of funding, in order to get your stock price up, the amount of time that people spend on your app has to go up," he said…."So, when you put that much pressure on that one number, you're going to start trying to invent new ways of getting people to stay hooked."
"You have a business model designed to engage you and get you to basically suck as much time out of your life as possible and then selling that attention to advertisers."
Facebook told the BBC that its products were designed "to bring people closer to their friends, family, and the things they care about.” It said that "at no stage does wanting something to be addictive factor into that process"....
[Yet] last year Facebook's founding president, Sean Parker, said publicly that the company set out to consume as much user time as possible. He claimed it was "exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology."
Ultimately, promises of connection offered by social media platforms are sales pitches. But real community is not a product that people can buy. Whether or not we use technology in creating our own communities, we can be aware that the platforms we might choose to use are by no means neutral.
- How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
- According to the article, what does research indicate about the impacts of social media on young people?
- Does the article reflect your own sense of social media’s impact?
- Some critics argued that the article entitled, “Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?” was unduly sensationalist. What did you think?
- Do you think social media is partly to blame for rising rates of depression and anxiety among young people? Why or why not?
- What possible changes could be made in apps to make them less addicting?
- Are there any changes you would make in how social media platforms are structured?
Ask for volunteers to share one thing they like about social media, and one thing they think should change about social media.
Research assistance provided by John Bergen.