How we’re helping teens navigate effects of social media
“I think we’re going to look back 20 years from now and all of us are going to be like ‘what the hell were we thinking’ when we recognize the damage that it (social media) has done to a generation.”
U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan, Alaska
Last week’s Congressional testimony by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen had me yet again pondering the effect of social media on youth. Along with a recent Wall Street Journal article, Haugen’s presentation demonstrates the company’s having known for years the damage that Facebook and Instagram postings have on society, particularly young women and girls. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”
In a recent 60 Minutes interview, Ms. Haugen said, “As these young women begin to consume this eating disorder content, they get more and more depressed. It actually makes them use the app more. And so they end up in this feedback cycle where they hate their bodies more and more.” At a time in their lives where girls already experience so much pressure over their appearance, Facebook and Instagram exacerbate this insecurity; a downward spiral begins that can lead to eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and in extreme cases self-harm and suicide.
Wanting to know what Keystone students thought led me to sit down with four junior girls during lunch last Friday. Quincy, Mya, Faith, and Sarah all corroborated Ms. Haugen’s testimony. Quincy described social media as “toxic because it promotes an unrealistic body image,” but “I still use it.” Mya and Faith explained that social media portray an image of women who look like “models living the life in the Caribbean having so much fun,” and girls think “I should live like her, I want her life.” Faith explained that, “As Keystone kids, we study a lot and want to do well in school,” but social media portray such a glamorous life that teens can’t help but wonder what they’re missing.
Sarah described the actual physiological impact of social media and how it lessened her ability to focus. She experienced the way TikTok and Instagram created an insatiable appetite for constant change. “When I got off TikTok, I felt my attention span increase 200%.” Sarah bravely first deleted and then redid her accounts. Now she “follows things I want to see as opposed to things that take me to an insecure state.”
When I asked these four thoughtful young women whether they thought Congress should regulate social media, they were pessimistic whether this would happen. They pointed to the inextricable links among social media, politics, and other sectors of society. Ultimately, they believe the most effective, and perhaps the only, way for young women to combat the ill effects of social media will be through education.
So, what can parents and educators do to prepare children for the ubiquitous social media? At school, Coach Jody Ridewood-Hawk outlined some of the units in the Middle School health class. In the area of mental health, the students discuss:
- Teen Suicide
- Stress Management
- Relaxation Techniques
- The resources available to them at school.
Students and teachers talk specifically about online safety. “Mrs. Antuna, Director of Innovation and Learning, and Ms. Troche, Assistant Director of Innovation and Learning, came to class and gave a presentation about online safety and how to make more informed choices, as well as how to better protect their privacy when online.” Children also learn how to:
- Watch out for leading questions or ads.
- Remember you are in control.
- Never arrange to meet someone that you met online without informing a parent or adult first.
- Beware that online predators are smart and patient.
- Know that you could be harassed or even blackmailed by the person you are talking to online.
- Understand Online bullying
Dr. Wivagg commented, “We have incorporated discussions on social media into our 7th grade health and nutrition class. Ms. Antuna teaches this portion of the class along with Coach Ridewood-Hawk and Coach Petiton. We also talk about it in advisory and have sessions in Town Hall.”
We will continue to augment this curriculum with information on how to combat the effects of social media on students’ sense of self.
In high school, Keystone is piloting a new curriculum this year. Led by our Wellness Council that includes upper school students, school counselor Dr. Erica Shapiro, and head of Upper School Bill Spedding, the program will be for all 9-12 students. As Dr. Shapiro explains, “The Social Institute platform is used to engage Upper School students in a coordinated discussion around significant topics associated with digital citizenship, social emotional learning, and healthy engagement with technology. These lessons are hand-chosen by Wellness Council leadership and grade-level officers. For the first quarter of this academic year, lessons will cover such wide-ranging topics as: setting the school community up for success with respect to re-entry support and self-care; preventing academic and emotional burnout; setting healthy boundaries both interpersonally and with respect to technology; and navigating disagreements with others both in-person and online.”
In my conversation with the four junior girls last week, they explained that social media platforms are hard to delete for technological and social reasons. These sites also provide students, and adults, with social connections, sources for news, and opportunities to engage in a variety of activities in society.
Social media is here to stay, and even if Congress does agree to impose some form of regulation, the potential for harming or destroying girls’ sense of self and worth remains. For that reason, parents and educators must teach children and adolescents how to use sites like Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, and others responsibly and avoid addiction. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that people have compared social media to cigarettes. In last week’s hearings, Senator Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut said, “Big Tech now faces the Big Tobacco jaw-dropping moment of truth.” In the meantime, we must, in the words of a song from the 1970’s, “teach your children well.”