It’s worth acknowledging up front that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram aren’t all bad. A great deal depends on how you use them. With that in mind, we can point out several positive aspects connected with the use of social media.
The Pros of Social Media
Staying connected. Services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat make it easy to keep in touch with friends and family. They’re also a great way to reconnect with past acquaintances.
Strengthening existing relationships. Social media shine brightest as a means of supporting or enhancing existing, nonvirtual relationships. Spouses can use them to exchange love notes during the course of the day. They’re also a great way for us as parents to keep tabs on our kids.
Modeling positive use. Under the right circumstances, social media can influence teens and young adults to emulate healthy and socially constructive behaviors. An interest in sound exercise regimens, good eating habits, and involvement in public issues can all be stimulated through conversations on Twitter and Facebook.
Finding a voice. In moderation, social networking can provide some kids—especially the shy and retiring types—with opportunities for self-expression that they wouldn’t otherwise have. This in turn can help boost their self-esteem.
The Cons of Social Media
Social media can be a good thing when used carefully. But when we get down to examining the actual practices of real people, it becomes clear that the negatives easily outweigh the positives. This is especially true in the case of younger users. Here’s a list of some ways in which media overuse and abuse are having a negative impact on all of us—psychologically, physically, emotionally, and culturally:
No privacy. To begin, there’s a basic principle that every user of social media needs to remember: nothing you do in “private” is ever really private.
Virtual reality versus actual reality. So-called virtual reality is an ever-present aspect of all forms of cyberculture. Once they log on to Facebook or Twitter, some people have a tendency to assume the attitude of another person living a parallel life in a parallel world.
Internet narcissism. Social media users have a tendency to reveal only the best and most attractive aspects of their lives. This easily leads to comparison, conflict, jealousy, envy, rivalry, discontent, and, ultimately, depression for those who feel they can’t measure up.
For example, Snapchat dysmorphia is a more recent term that refers to people wanting to change their face through plastic surgery to more closely resemble their altered face on Snapchat. The idea of altering the body to be more beautiful is not new, but it is being taken to a whole new level when adding the unrealistic morphing that technology editing can create. The person wanting to have his or her face changed wants the affirmation received from an altered Snapchat picture.
Disengagement. Some research suggests that teens who spend hours every day tapping messages onto screens instead of talking face-to-face with real people are suffering serious impairment of basic social skills. They’re losing the ability to read simple communicative cues such as facial expression, tone of voice, and body language.
Brain impairment. Designers of mobile devices are increasingly engineering their products with an understanding of how human brains work. By stimulating the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine into the reward and pleasure pathways of the brain, device overuse can create unhealthy dependencies or even addictions. Overexposure to media can lead to sleep deprivation, interruption of healthy routines, shortening of attention spans, and academic problems at school.
Pressure to conform. Psychologist Mary Aiken has connected excessive social media use with “groupthink” and something called risky-shift phenomenon. It has long been known that people in groups—especially adolescents—have a tendency to egg each other on to engage in risky behaviors. The larger the group, the greater the conformity.
Ill-effects of multitasking. Social media have also been linked with so-called multitasking. Most kids believe that they can do their homework, send Tweets, check Facebook, and listen to music all at the same time, without missing a beat. But research shows that, for most people, multitasking leads to a loss of focus and comprehension.
Involvement with pornography. Most teens aren’t aware of the potentially dire consequences of sexting. Nude selfies posted online qualify as a form of child pornography. The shame of getting caught up in this kind of activity can be too much for some kids to bear, leading in many cases to severe depression and suicidal thoughts.
Cyberbullying. Bullying over the internet is a threat that some kids face twenty-four hours a day. This kind of treatment produces serious depression, which in turn can open the door to suicidal thoughts. Statistics indicate that victims of cyberbullying are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide as their nonbullied peers.
Extramarital Affairs. This is for us as parents. Divorce lawyers and marriage counselors both know Facebook has become the single-greatest breeding ground for infidelity. Nothing—not swinger’s clubs, chat rooms, workplace temptations, nor pornography—comes anywhere close. Many, many affairs either start or are made easier to maintain by Facebook. As a spouse and parent, you need to answer this question: Is the momentary enjoyment I get from being on Facebook really worth the risk to my marriage and family? Before you answer, “It’ll never happen to me,” think about how you’d respond if your teenager answered that way to a warning about being sexually active. Again, is it really worth it?
Sexting and Child Pornography
Both you and your kids need to understand that it’s illegal to produce (take a photo), distribute (send a photo), or possess (save a photo) of a naked child; it’s called child pornography. For obvious reasons, sexting has the potential to incriminate participants on all three levels. There are a number of ways that sexters can be discovered, including law enforcement surveillance, monitoring by internet servers, and hacker activity.
- Mary Aiken, The Cyber Effect: An Expert in Cyberpsychology Explains How Technology Is Shaping Our Children, Our Behavior, and our Values—and What We Can Do About It (New York: Random House, 2016), 197-198.
- Amanda Lenhart, Mary Madden, Aaron Smith, Kristen Purcell, Kathryn Zickuhr, and Lee Rainie, “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites, Part 4: The Role of Parents in Digital Safekeeping and Advice-Giving,” Pew Research Center, November 9, 2011, http://www.pewinternet.org/2011/11/09/part-4-the-role-of-parents-in-digital-safekeeping-and-advice-giving/.