Austin, Texas, United States
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When was the last time you checked in with social media? An hour ago? Thirty minutes? Maybe ten? Social media plays a large role in modern society. Humans have an innate drive to belong to groups and take part in social interactions; and a sense of belonging can be almost as compelling as the need for food.1 According to Merriam-Webster, social media is defined as a “form of electronic communication through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content.” Some popular sites include Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Many people engage in social media; however, most users on newer platforms are young adults and adolescents.
As thrilling as the experience of getting a social media account is for an adolescent, it also opens the gates for turmoil. Adolescents are at an important stage of developmental growth; between the ages of twelve and twenty-five, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is maturing.1 This process includes the changes of puberty, but many teens also have problems with identity and self-perception. They are more likely to take risks and seek novelty, and can be easily swayed by peer pressure. Hormonal changes contribute to physical, emotional, and intellectual changes during adolescence.1 Although all of these are natural changes, maturation can also be greatly influenced by a teen’s environment, and it is important to foster the right influences at that age.
Mass media, community, and adult role models can greatly influence adolescent risk-taking behaviors.1 Social media can be a great source of information and current events, and used properly can foster a sense of belonging. When adolescents perceive a greater sense of belonging in school, they place more value in academics. It also allows them to connect with the world and to be up-to-date with fast-paced changes in news. But adolescents who feel a weaker sense of belonging may develop negative behaviors.2 For instance, a teen may begin to compare the number of “likes” they receive on posts or the number of followers they have with other peers and friends and begin to feel inferior and unworthy. They may appear aloof or isolated to their family and peers and develop unhealthy and self-deprecating thoughts that may further lead to anxiety, loneliness, and depression.
One large influence in social media is the presence of “role models” on each platform. These may be famous celebrities, influential figures, makeup gurus, or Tik-Tok stars, and many adolescents look up to these individuals. One survey showed that the youngest participants cited social media influencers most frequently as role models. In fact, thirty percent of eleven- to fifteen-year-olds pointed to these online stars as the type of people they would want to be.3 Such positive role models can promote good behavior and may even influence career development, but too often popular influencers are hypersexualized figures, especially on some of the popular platforms. As a result, many young adolescents feel pressured to post comments, dances, videos, and photos that are blatantly sexual, forgetting that this behavior has consequences. “Plasticity permits adolescents to learn and adapt in order to acquire independence; however, plasticity also increases an individual’s vulnerability toward making improper decisions, making it difficult to think critically and rationally before making complex decisions.”6 Because adolescents rely heavily on the emotional regions of the brain, they find it challenging to make what adults would consider logical and appropriate decisions.1 More vulnerable teens may feel compelled to also post explicit content, which may lead to unwanted attention from random and sometimes pedophilic strangers. Adolescent girls may be subjected to unsolicited pornographic images, or pressured to send nude photographs that are then disseminated to entire social networks. A recent poll of 2,000 teens found that nearly 75% had received pornographic direct messages from strangers, even if they had a private account.4 As social media becomes more sexualized it also becomes more unsafe, but teens often dismiss this and feel that they “know what they are doing.”
Adolescents must also be wary of cyberbullying on social media. Social media gives users a sense of anonymity—people feel safer behind their screens. This can foster a sense of community among strangers with similar interests, and people are often able to be more open about ideas and vulnerabilities. But some individuals abuse the power of anonymity to hurt others, sending derogatory, hurtful comments that may be threatening to susceptible teens, provoking them to fight back or even to believe the negative comments. Since adolescents rely on the emotional regions of their brains, negative comments can be particularly damaging.1 Adolescents should be wary of any strangers they talk to and practice safety when exploring social media; especially avoid sharing location and personal information. They should be smart when logging on, always maintain a healthy self-perception, and remember that what is portrayed on social media is often falsified. Although not everything on social media is dangerous, adolescents must be wary and be ready to respond in a smart way. Doing so can ensure that social media remains a place in which teens can safely interact with friends, stay up-to-date on the latest news, and communicate with people with similar interests.
- Arain, Mariam, et al. “Maturation of the Adolescent Brain.” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, Dove Medical Press, 3 Apr. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3621648/#:~:text=Brain maturation occurs during adolescence,estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.&text=The development and maturation of the prefrontal cortex occurs primarily,the age of 25 years.
- Allen, Kelly A., et al. “(PDF) Social Media Use and Social Connectedness in Adolescents: The Positives and the Potential Pitfalls.” ResearchGate, Australian Psychological Society, 19 Mar. 2014, www.researchgate.net/publication/260289323_Social_Media_Use_and_Social_Connectedness_in_Adolescents_The_Positives_and_the_Potential_Pitfalls.
- Harris, Sarah. “Teens Are Looking to Social Media Stars as Role Models, Survey Shows.” IOL, IOL | News That Connects South Africans, 19 Dec. 2018, www.iol.co.za/lifestyle/family/parenting/teens-are-looking-to-social-media-stars-as-role-models-survey-shows-18555673
- Kao, Emilie. “We Must Fight the Sexualization of Children by Adults.” The Heritage Foundation, The Heritage Foundation, 5 Oct. 2019, www.heritage.org/marriage-and-family/commentary/we-must-fight-the-sexualization-children-adults.
- Ng, Stephanie V. “Social Media and the Sexualization of Adolescent Girls.” American Journal of Psychiatry Residents Journal, vol. 11, no. 12, 2016, pp. 14–14., doi:10.1176/appi.ajp-rj.2016.111206
GANGA PRASANTH is a high school senior who plans to pursue a degree in psychology or sociology and hopes to practice medicine one day.