Are you concerned about teens and social media?
I am. That’s why my ears perked up when I heard that Seattle Public Schools decided to sue social media companies over the harmful effects they are having on school children in their district. According to NPR, the suit targets:
"...TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat, seeking to hold them accountable for the mental health crisis among youth. Seattle Public Schools filed the lawsuit [in January] in U.S. District Court. The 91-page complaint says the social media companies have created a public nuisance by targeting their products to children. It blames them for worsening mental health and behavioral disorders including anxiety, depression, disordered eating and cyberbullying; making it more difficult to educate students; and forcing schools to take steps such as hiring additional mental health professionals, developing lesson plans about the effects of social media, and providing additional training to teachers."
I found their approach to be interesting—and promising. This comes two years after the revelations of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen in 2021. She released reams of internal research by the social media giant into the way Facebook products were impacting teens’ mental health in negative ways. Some social media company executives have long understood how harmful their services are for teens, and yet they seem to refuse to change the way they operate. Maybe lawsuits will apply the pressure needed to shift things?
This news comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just announced the results of a new survey of teens this week—one with very troubling findings. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey for the decade ending in 2021 showed that nearly 3 out of 5 high-school girls in the US reported feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness. That was an increase of around 60% over the past decade. Both girls and boys said they have mental health challenges, but girls reported much more sadness/hopelessness (57% in girls vs. 29% in boys) and serious consideration of suicide (30% in girls—that is 1 in 3 girls—and 14% in boys) than boys. Overall, 41% of girls reported poor mental health in the previous 30 days, and 18% of boys did.
Social media was not the focus of this study in particular—but it did find that girls were almost twice as likely as boys to be electronically bullied via text and social media. In the survey, 20% of girls reported being cyberbullied in the past year (and 11% of boys). Clearly this is one factor affecting our teens, and teen girls especially. It’s extremely sobering.
The survey included over 17,200 respondents and led to calls for more help from schools to support students’ mental health, and to improve “connectedness” with school communities. The federal researchers said that teen girls in particular are “engulfed in a growing wave of violence and trauma,” according to The Washington Post.
This situation is all the more real to me because of my own daughters’ relationship with social media, especially Instagram, which is very prevalent among their peer group. My older daughter took a stand against Instagram a couple times, first as a young teen when she deleted the app because of all the distractions it caused. In her high school years, she felt she needed it to keep up with school, club, and student athletics news and with some of her friends and peer group.
But again last month, she deleted it from her phone once more, after explaining to me how detrimental the app is for teens. Top among its faults: The app’s constant pull towards social comparison, and a panoply of competitive achievements of one’s peers flashed right before your eyes.
If you think about it, what are two of the most judgmental places in the world? High school and social media! Combining these two together makes for an ultra-toxic environment. As my daughter pointed out, people showcase a very small sliver of their existence, which is meant to look exciting and amazing and enviable, and is often quite fake. On the other hand, those teens who try to show a bit of their “real” selves get really negative responses in the comments, simply because they post an unpolished video, or a share a creative project.
To top it all off, I’ve recently learned about incidents in our school community of cyberbullying, including body shaming, the use of stereotypes and defamatory language, and starting negative rumors about students. It’s all very worrying to see what’s happening with our teens online.
Here we should recall Marcus Aurelius’ words in the Meditations: “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.” Food for thought.
As the Seattle lawsuit points out,
"Defendants have successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of youth, hooking tens of millions of students across the country into positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse of Defendants' social media platforms," the complaint said. "Worse, the content Defendants curate and direct to youth is too often harmful and exploitive ...."
But it’s hard to quit, and not just because the platforms are intentionally addictive. In a sense, we NEED to keep up with social media because of how reliant people at my kids’ school and local organizations are on social media to get the word out about everything from e-waste collections to sports team tryouts.
In the past two years, I have learned much more about my daughters’ campus and what’s happening there from the Instagram accounts of the student newspaper, clubs, and the athletics department than I have from reading any number of emails I receive. The news is fresher, pithier, and more clear, and I feel obliged to check Instagram stories to find out about school events and news.
My younger daughter is now in high school but hasn’t yet downloaded social media apps, by her own choice. She has to ask ME for information about her school sports teams because she literally does not get the updates they are sharing via Instagram. So I send her screenshots from social media! We have determined together that she may have to get Instagram soon, just to read these announcements… but with mixed emotions.
Is there a better way to get the information we need from our schools and activities? Without these money-making platforms that have super negative effects on student mental health and well-being?
Going back to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen: She recently diagnosed the problems that develop the more time that teens (or anyone) spend on social media well in a recent roundtable discussion, summarized here:
"What we have seen from Facebook's own research is that Facebook knows that the products it makes are very engaging. They're designed to be engaging," she said. "Unfortunately, in the case of children and young adults, that can lead to very high rates of what we call 'problematic use.'"
Facebook's algorithms are not neutral, Haugen explained. Content that gets a reaction from people gets distributed more widely. That's how an innocent search for "healthy recipes" on Instagram might lead a teenager to eating disorder content instead.
Haugen said Instagram's algorithms can lead to addiction in its young users by creating "little dopamine loops." In the first ten minutes on Instagram, people will see content from their friends or pages they follow, she says. As they stay longer on the site, the algorithm will reach further to show them new and engaging content in an effort to keep them there.
"Once you get an hour or two in, Facebook's algorithms are the main thing that's choosing what you're focusing on," she said. "Now you're in the zone where you really are just putting yourselves in the algorithm's hands."
Do we really want our kids in those hands?
My daughter and I recently read and chatted about an article focusing on a “Luddite club” formed by high school students who decided to give up their smartphones and return to paper books and drawing pads, and to chatting together at the local park. She thought it sounded idyllic.
In a Stoic sense, I hope my kids will continue to question their impressions about social media and its impact on themselves and their peers… and that they will use their own judgment to guide how they use their time and where they get their dopamine—not rely on that of an algorithm on a money-making social media platform.
Stoic life philosophy and others’ judgments
In the series Black Mirror, there’s an infamous episode where the main character is judged for her actions minute-to-minute by her peers, gaining and losing points via a social media-style app. A cascade of missteps, largely outside of her control, results in a lower score—and, as a result, a disturbing downgrade in her real life. The episode is called Nosedive, and it’s terrifying. (But apparently not so scary to those who turned it into a "fun" game sold at Target!)
This sounds like a futuristic nightmare. But it’s already happening in some countries. Artificial intelligence is quickly combining with facial recognition, social media, and crowdsourcing to become tools of social control.
I find this situation of great concern as a human being—and also as a follower of Stoic practices. It makes me wonder: No matter what scary impositions technology enables, how can we, as individuals, effectively cope with others’ judgments?
Ancient Stoics, with Epictetus the strongest voice among them, teach us that we have no control over what other people think or do, and therefore should ignore others’ opinions. In day-to-day life, this is hard. People’s judgments happen everywhere, all the time, and they can affect our lives in real ways. Others’ opinions cost us jobs, school admittances, relationships, and more.
At times, I’ve found myself swimming in a sea of criticism, and it’s toxic. As a student and a young professional, I would slave over projects trying to perfect them and protect them from criticism, trying so hard to please that my own unique imprint got lost. (In that way, worries about others’ judgments actually kept me from doing my best work.) I wanted my efforts and my external persona to be bulletproof. This tendency among girls, in particular, has been highlighted in recent media stories that try to explain why girls' high achievement in school does not always translate into success in the workplace: perfectionism is the enemy of more lasting, real-world accomplishment.
But critiques of my work (and of me!) inevitably happened, and though I tried to maintain a brave face, I was crushed inside. That was before I accepted that I couldn’t control or change others’ reactions, and that I could still live a good life no matter what they thought. Before I began practicing a Stoic life philosophy.
Now, as I have developed a more self-reliant idea about my own value and core principles, I’ve come to see interactions with others as a dance with an often-unreliable partner.
The ancients knew this. That’s the source of all the language about being able to “bear” other people. Marcus Aurelius had to do this as emperor, and I think he spoke most eloquently about what needs to be done: As humans, we are built to work together in society, so we have to balance our wishes and drives with those of others. That means we must put up with people who are separated from reason and their ruling center.
So we have to learn this dance. Even if our feet are often stepped on, bringing involuntary tears to our eyes.
This is a lifelong project. We can interact with our coworkers, gathering input, without letting their agendas penetrate too deeply into our ruling centers. We can learn from mentors, without being controlled by their point of view—asking ourselves, like Socrates, “Is it true?” We can share what we create, and hope that others, through our common humanity, will respond to the work as intended or will offer ideas to inform us—but we can’t expect this to happen. We can be close with family, yet still follow our own paths.
We could learn to view our work, and our relationships, not as finished, polished, perfect things, but as living entities, like trees in the forest, always expanding and shifting. That way, everything is a work in progress, like our own moral development, where there’s always room for growth ...that is, until we somehow become Stoic sages.
I’ve found I make more progress on this when I heed the advice of my daughters’ teachers, who inculcate a “growth mindset.” The crux of it: You don’t know everything to begin with, and you learn through making mistakes. Mistakes are “expected, respected, inspected, and corrected,” says a classroom poster. The teacher reminds them: Your work won’t be perfect. If you’ve developed a new skill, you’ve won. (This is NOT how I was taught in school, where perfection was expected and the rest was disrespected.)
Where does that leave our “score”—in other words, how we are assessed by others?
The hard truth is that we must learn to ignore it and endure the consequences. As I feel myself being judged by peers or colleagues, I tell myself: This is yet another opportunity to exercise my core principles and hope that my truth will win out. After all, a good social or professional rank is not essential, but rather a preferred indifferent in a self-reliant life lived according to the virtues.
Last week, Modern Stoicism published my guest post on Stoic Parenting in the Age of Distraction. If you haven't seen it, please check it out. If you already have, thanks!
The post is my take on staying focused on what really matters - as parents, modern Stoics, and technology users. It's not an easy task in our world filled with distracting devices and competing demands.
My story begins with my dad, who had remarkable powers of concentration. I find it much more difficult than he did, but every day is an opportunity to practice. I try to squeeze in dedicated periods of concentration. The more I remind myself to be present, the more I'm able to focus on the people and projects I truly care about.
In case you are not familiar with it, Modern Stoicism is an excellent source on applying Stoic philosophy to our lives today. Writers for the blog explore a wide range of interpretations of Stoic thought. The group also organizes the annual Stoicon conference and Stoic Week.
My daughter made a brave choice a couple weeks ago. She deleted Instagram from her phone.
The intelligence of her decision was brought home just a few days later. Police showed up at her middle school class one afternoon to interview students about—you guessed it—their use of Facebook-owned Instagram. Someone spoofing one girl’s account had been asking for nude pictures of 12-year-olds and using them to blackmail students. Police are trying to track down who did it and what they gathered.
My daughter had already decided to remove the app not out of fear, but because of its impact on her moment-to-moment thoughts. Despite the fun of keeping up with her friends’ activities, it was becoming a constant distraction.
Her phone was clogged with buzzing reminders and flashing updates featuring all the things she was missing. She also had an unwelcome conflict with a friend. The seventh-grader called out my daughter and a classmate in an Instagram “story”—replete with shaming words.
That’s not to say that communicating online is all bad—it’s central to our lives in good ways, too. For middle schoolers today, reaching each other using mobile devices is part of the social fabric. It’s how they make plans and share memories. I wouldn’t want to deny that to my children.
But they do need to learn to set limits. Ultimately, it’s up to them to figure out those boundaries, which is why my daughter’s choice to end a social media distraction made me proud.
We are all tasked with serving as our own gatekeepers—and the stakes are high. Recall Marcus Aurelius’ words in the Meditations:
The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.
Online, we are exposed to masses of “thoughts” that can shift our minds. It turns out that many of these expressions are not even real: they are propaganda distributed by people trying to shift public opinion.
The news about Cambridge Analytica misusing Facebook data and the indictments surrounding fake news and profiles on the social network have been extremely troubling. It’s been a problem for a long time that’s only now being increasingly exposed. We are seeing the consequences of an online world where people can stay anonymous, create false personas, and wield tremendous influence.
As we navigate the treacherous waters of the Internet, we should remain mindful of our souls—and I’m glad my 12-year-old sets a pretty good example.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.