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.

First Things First

I just read a New York Times article about the state of U. S. schools today, based on the question, “‘Are American children getting adequate schooling in the pandemic?‘” [NYTimes 1.22.21]. It warns that inconsistency and disruption have been the only constants, that lack of guidance from the federal government has left districts to fend for themselves, that “there has been no official accounting of how many American students are attending school in person or virtually” [Ibid.]. This guarantees that we cannot know how many students have had face-to-face learning or what the educational outcomes might be, but the author argues that “some of the early data is deeply troubling” [Ibid.]

Given the variety of situations, the study chose to provide snapshots of seven districts that, together, provide a cross-section of America. While the snapshots offer interesting contrast, they also suggest confirmation that disadvantaged students suffer disproportionately. “‘Lower-income kids, kids of color, kids with unique needs like those who have a disability or other challenges — the numbers look very, very bad,’ said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy organization based at the University of Washington Bothell” [Ibid.]. They also confirm that students are suffering not only academically but also in terms of their mental health.

An earlier article in The Washington Post supports these findings. In December “A flood of new data — on the national, state and district levels — finds students began this academic year behind. Most of the research concludes students of color and those in high-poverty communities fell further behind their peers, exacerbating long-standing gaps in American education” [Washington Post, 12.6.20]

As a teacher, I’ve always cared about my students’ academic progress. As an activist, I’m working to impact the educational inequities that plague our less advantaged children. Yet I think we’re missing the boat here. Certainly, we need to improve online learning and work for more equity in educational opportunities to limit further harm that the pandemic may inflict on our students. Even more urgent, however, must be our efforts to address the mental and emotional consequences of the pandemic and the strain our students are under. If we ignore the trauma many students – and many families – are enduring for the sake of academic progress, we will ensure that neither improves adequately. Too many of our students will not succeed without more emotional and psychological support.

Last December the Superintendents of the nation’s three largest school districts, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, called for an immediate Marshall plan for education, a national commitment to address the national emergency in education [Washington Post 12.12.20]. I agree that such a plan is overdue, but it cannot focus on achievement without addressing mental and emotional health first. Our students are struggling. We’re all struggling. Those who feel helpless and overwhelmed will not achieve academically until they feel more hope. Let’s get our priorities straight here and serve our learners by meeting these needs.