The Harmful Impact of Social Media

The refrain repeats relentlessly: our students are struggling. The pandemic has robbed them of normalcy. Parents, teachers, and taxpayers fret over lost reading and math skill development, but experts keep telling us that our students social and emotional health must come first. “Eight in ten students are struggling with focus on school or work and avoiding distractions” [https://www.activeminds.org/studentsurvey]. “Three in 10 parents say child’s emotional, mental health suffering now” [Gallup poll]. “More than half of California students who responded to a survey by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said they experienced serious stress, anxiety or depression at least some time during the past year. An increasing number said they had suicidal thoughts” [Edsource]. Ample documentation of these concerns is widely available, and I have written before about the importance of attending to students’ mental and emotional health first if we are to close the academic gaps they’ve endured.

This week brought more bad news. Facebook has known for at least two years that its Instagram app “makes body image issues worse for teenage girls”; a slide from an internal presentation in 2019, as confirmed by the Wall Street Journal” acknowledges the issue for one in three girls [The Guardian]. A subsequent study one year later confirmed these numbers [Ibid.].

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said a slide from one internal presentation in 2019, seen by the Wall Street Journal. “Thirty-two per cent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” a subsequent presentation reported in March 2020. A “transatlantic study found more than 40% of Instagram users who reported feeling ‘unattractive’ said the feeling began on the app; about a quarter of the teenagers who reported feeling ‘not good enough’ said it started on Instagram” [Ibid.]. Other studies “ implicate social media in an epidemic of mental health problems among young people” [Ibid.]

The Washington Post calls out Facebook not only for hiding these research results and failing to address them with changing algorithyms and standards; it also claims that “In some cases, its executives even made public statements at odds with the findings.” [Washington Post].

Social media fails to police itself. Too often it hides behind claims its own research does not support. At a time when our students are already struggling with so many present issues – the continuing pandemic, climate change and drastic weather, social injustice, community assaults on their schools and school boards – social media adds one more layer damaging to the emotional and mental health of our students.

What will we do about it? Will the federal government seek meaningful changes that protect our children? Will parents guide children through their struggle? We need to acknowledge the harm being done and work to change the experience of our students.

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