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.
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.