Impact of social media on teenagers?

Please remember that all of you have freedom in your hands through social media platforms. With Freedom comes immense responsibility. You must use it as a tool that powers the next generation to achieve greater unity and equality. It is all in your hands and your hand -held devices.

In order to address the hot debate on social media and its implications on the teenagers, I prepared a speech by assuming the role of a Senior official who is addressing a group of school students. Through this speech, I have made an attempt to bring out the perception and concerns of both the parents and the youth. I had to do some research too which I have disclosed at the end of my note

Social media has become so pervasive for our youth. Once I decided on the topic of my address this morning, I asked the counsellor of your school if there was a social media group of the senior school students. She was startled by my question and later admitted that the school authorities had never thought about creating such a group. I suggested that we create a What’s App group before my visit. All of you must have received the information about today’s event on What’s App. The school has included me in this group for the next one week so that I can receive feedback and queries from you after this talk.

Let me start by telling you a story.

I have a habit of checking my smartphone almost as soon as I get up. The habit is a routine, perhaps for many of us. I was skimming over my phone with half open eyes just two days ago. I stopped at a What’s App from my sixteen-year- old daughter. The message said “read this”. The text below her message was a poem written by a 13-year old girl who is getting treated in a New York hospital for a rare but terminal illness. The poem is titled “Slow Dance”. The following words get repeated:

“You better slow down.
Don’t dance so fast.
Time is short.
The music won’t last”

The poem ends with these words:
“Life is not a race.
Do take it slower
Hear the music
Before the song is over.”

This young girl has 6 months left to live, and as her dying wish, she wanted to send a letter telling everyone to live their life to the fullest, since she never will. She’ll never make it to prom, or graduate from high school, or get married and have a family of her own. We can give her and her family a little by sending her poem to as many people as possible. With every name her poem is sent by us, the American Cancer Society will donate 3 cents per name to her treatment and recovery plan.

I will share a completely different insight. I want all of you to guess who made the following statement:

“Honestly, I sometimes truly wish that tools such as the i-phone, laptops, i-pads, tablets etc. hadn’t been invented. Sure, they are great, incredibly useful and fun time-killers. But the way teenagers abuse them, and turn them into mini social control rooms is frankly awful”.

Who do you all think said this? A parent, grand parent or teacher lamenting on how social media has doomed the future of our children? Wrong. A tenth grader in Seattle wrote it as a part of an assignment to answer the question, “How has online social networking influenced your relationships with friends and family?”.

Both the cases left me stunned. The first case is an emotional story but got me involved in the life of a young girl who I did not even know. The main reason for my unexpected involvement was due to a key innovation of the last decade – social media. The second case amplified the voice of a teenager who seemed lost in the maze of the social media world.

Social media can be categorised into 6 types and they use 7 building blocks. The types include joint projects like Wikipedia, blogs like Twitter, content communities like YouTube and social networking sites like Facebook. The functional building blocks are identity, conversations, sharing, presence, relationships, reputation and groups. Different building blocks are used for different type of social media. For example, users of LinkedIn rely on identity, reputation and sharing whereas YouTube uses conversations, groups and sharing. Few will deny that the biggest benefits of social media are: reach, cheap accessibility, usability, immediacy and permanence. By permanence, I mean it is here to stay.

Whatever be the functional building blocks of a social media platform, one thing is evident – each one reaches into a very private world of an individual. This characteristic of social media has fuelled enormous public debate around privacy and safety. Critics point out that the disadvantages of social networking go much deeper than privacy and safety as it weakens the healthy youth development.

In 2014, Browser Media, Socialnomics, MacWorld discovered that nearly a quarter of all teens log on to Facebook over ten times a day. Authors of the Research confirm “young people love social media”. Child advocate, Raffi Cavoukian, provides evidence to suggest reforms in social media. He challenges parents, educators and citizens to see the connection between youth development and what he describes as a “vast sociological experiment” that may forever change human relationships.

I wanted to delve deeper into Raffi’s stand so I did some research. The American Academy of Pediatric Council on Communications and Media conducted a study to see if social media platforms contribute to the health concerns which pediatricians have about young people in areas such as body image, learning disorders, sexual behaviour, aggression etc. The Council has called this study as “an uncontrolled experiment” providing inconclusive results. Behavioural science will take many more years in understanding the impact of social media on young minds and whether it is good or bad.

Parents, governments, media across the world continue to ask questions and amplify their concerns about impact of social media on teenagers. Is it possible their questions are driven more by cultural fear than by intellectual curiosity?

I read an article by Erica Williams Dimon in World Economic Forum. She says, “limiting the power of young seems to be a universally shared value. People seek to curb the behaviour of the young either out of protection and love or out of oppression and control”. She adds, “any tool that exponentially increases the power of young people is almost always seen as inherently dangerous. Thus, social media is scary.”

There is great fear of what it means for young people to wield this power in a personal, economic and political context. In a personal context, young people use social media in ways that show their lack of maturity. This emotional and psychological immaturity could prove to be detrimental to them or others. Youth also have the power to engage directly with consumer brands which makes them important in an economic sense. Obama ’s election campaign in 2008, Arab spring, Modi’s resounding victory in 2014 are great examples of how young people have used social media to express their support in politics. The involvement of youth in politics through social media has affected outcomes.

The middle ground between empowerment and protection, freedom and restriction is where the fundamental question about social media and young people lies.

We all know that drinking and driving is dangerous, punishable and unacceptable. So, have we made our youth stop drinking or driving? We must make our youth aware of the consequences of their actions, educate them about acceptable behaviour. We should also talk about wrong incidents. All those who have stake in the future of our youth must guide them towards a more responsible use of social media tools. The answer does not lie in keeping them shut out from the phenomena that has the tremendous potential to unite the world and allows them to raise voice against larger ills of our society.

Senior High school students is the audience in front of me. So, I wish to point out another aspect of social media which relates to admissions to colleges and recruitments by employers. At least 35 percent of admission officers in US undergraduate schools scan prospective student’s social media activities. The decisions of admission officers are affected by unacceptable findings. Similarly, most employers have adopted compulsory assessment of the social media behaviour of job seekers before making job offers. The society is establishing acceptable standards for activities of a person on social media platforms. Offensive and unacceptable behaviour will be rejected and even made punishable by law.

The power of social media to bring change cannot be under estimated. I wish to narrate five very impressive cases which were published in a World Bank report:

Each case is a strong endorsement of what youth can do with the power of social media in their hands.

  1. 250 young people met at the third Global Youth Anti-Corruption Forum in 2012 to share how use of social media played an instrumental role in global fight against corruption. Social media is being used to monitor the effectiveness of public service in countries such as Paraguay and Brazil. Youth is using Facebook and Twitter to spread official data in these countries.
  2. Website is being used by students in Philippines to evaluate their schools on Facebook and Twitter.
  3. Two 23- year-olds in Latvia have used a grant from US State department to build an e-petition system to accept proposals on policy change. The government reviews those petitions that garner more than 20 percent public support.
  4. McKenna Pope, a 13-year old girl from New Jersey started an online petition asking the CEO of Hasbro, a toy manufacturer, to feature the picture of a boy on their packages of Easy-Bake Oven. The packages always had picture of girls. Pope’s petition said “I want my four-year-old brother to know that it is OK for him to want to be a chef”. The petition received 45,000 supporters in less than a month. Hasbro had to come out with a packaging which was gender neutral.
  5. In December 2012, students in Pakistan participated in a sanitation hackathon to develop mobile and web-based applications for water and sanitation utilities. About 105 students came together to find solutions for 13 water and sanitation related problems.

What is the entire debate about social media and its impact on teenagers then all about? Andrew Keen a well-known critic of teenagers using excessive social media networks says that youth are vulnerable to crimes. He makes 3 main observations which grab headlines in media from time to time:

  • Social networking sites allow hate groups to recruit and distribute propaganda online.
  • Sexting is an issue, 88 percent of “privately” sexual images posted on social media are stolen and posted on porn sites without the subject’s knowledge.
  • Sexual predators find, stalk and assault young victims through social media.

Nick McGillivray reports in his study about the effects of social media on youth that there are some social detriments to social media. In particular, he elaborates on:

Cyberbullying – the authors of a report published by say that many children have become victims of threats, intimidation messages and rumours aimed to create chaos and intense anxiety. A 2012 study found 800,000 minors had been harassed on Facebook. Middle school children who experienced cyberbullying were almost twice as likely to try to kill themselves.

Addiction – most adults cite teenagers as the most affected groups by the addiction of social media as young get involved extensively. A 14- year-old boy in Mumbai lost his life while imitating the stunts on moving trains which were posted on an online video. Last month, a 19- year-old girl was swept away by the high tides on marine drive in Mumbai while taking a selfie. Her body was found after two days.

Extensive online screen time is considered to be the cause for poor social skills, need for instant gratification, narcissistic tendencies and other emotional conditions such as depression, anxiety and loneliness.

Less time for face-to-face interaction with friends and families. The authors of a study found that 47 percent of 18 to 34-year-old users use social media or texting while eating meals. 10 percent of people younger than 25 were reported checking their phones during sex.

In summary, the main disadvantages of social networking by teens include – lack of emotional connection, a tool to be hurtful as it diminishes thoughtfulness, creates a skewed self-image and decreases face-to-face communication skills.

I am personally concerned about misinformation that goes viral on social media. Anonymous people spread false rumours and unreliable information. Similarly, amateur medical advice and self-diagnosis of health problems are dangerous and life threatening for the vulnerable youth. Hackers have used the personal data and intimate pictures of youth without their knowledge to post on child pornography websites. If we have to educate our children about the misuse of social media then we have to openly talk about the various ways in which it can affect them.

Sociologists have the challenge to decide which restrictions are essential to be imposed on young people for their healthy development. I must quickly add, Scientists still do not have enough evidence on net gain or loss in the development of young people’s brains, behaviour and life skills due to the usage of social media.

We all need to find ways for better use of social media. Parents and families must talk together to come up with rules around TV, Internet, social media platforms. The rules could limit screen time for children to make sure that it does not take place of sleep, physical active sports, creative play and socialising. Government should provide better resources to schools, libraries and community organisations to offer better education and resources for online security, cybercrimes. Mental health professionals should work with at-risk youth to intervene at early stages of unacceptable behaviour. Technology companies should work with policy makers, parents, educators and community organisations to continuously create alertness and possibilities of privacy defence of youth. These companies must deploy advanced technologies that increase security of teenagers on social networks.

Supporters of social media usage point toward multiple benefits for teenagers. By using blogs and chat rooms young minds improve their reading, writing and critical thinking skills. Teenagers also use these venues to express their views and talent. Youth get socially and politically aware by watching news and documentaries on the net. Peer or professional online counselling serves as support options for the youth. Young minds reinforce their values by following their role models on social media.

Shannon Kyle, parent of a teenage daughter, wrote in Huffington Post where she says “I don’t agree the online world is an enemy of our children, in fact I think social media is amazing for our teens.” She lists – boost to sleep esteem, making new friends, being in touch with their heroes, access to education, cheap entertainment, advice, support groups, as some of the reasons in support of her statement in the article.

I have come across so many wonderful stories of young children who have leveraged social media platforms. Many teens have gained immense popularity by showing their talents. I am short of time but I will share a few exciting cases:

Nineteen-year-old Rishabh Shanbag was appointed a social media ambassador for the United Nation’s Giving Tuesday Movement. He received a letter from President Barack Obama praising the movement. He was also featured in the Forbes magazine when he was 18.

Jacob Sortarius, 13, is a social media star who has earned over 4.8 million followers on Instagram and more than 6 million fans on through his lip sync videos of popular songs.

Jake Mitchell, is a 16-year-old Vlogger from England. He started making videos when he was 8 by editing pictures together to tell a story on his dad’s computer. He started making short films with school friends at the age of 11 and one of the videos, Nerf War spy film, has received over 5 million views on his dad’s channel. He has 700,000 subscribes on YouTube.

Hannah Alper is a 13-year old blogger behind which she began when she was 9 . Her Twitter boasts over 41,000 followers and her fame has been steadily rising after her TED talk video on “How to Find your Spark”. Can you believe she is a motivational speaker?  Hannah has attended many high-profile speaking events in North America.

I will end this address by talking about a video on YouTube that has attracted more than 7 million views. It shows an 18-year old getting verbally abused by his parents for admitting he was gay. The video was secretly filmed and posted online. My daughter and I saw the video together. Later, we talked about homophobia and intolerance. My daughter was outraged as it was still an issue in the modern world. The video was an education for me.

Social media global ad spending is likely to exceed $35 billion. The corporations have high stakes in the success of social media. Social media will continue to grow in size of its audience and its influence on them. So, the debate on keeping the youth away from social media is futile. We need to educate our children about its use. Social media is the tool they can use to their advantage and for the larger benefit of the society.

Please remember that all of you have freedom in your hands through social media platforms. With Freedom comes immense responsibility. You must use it as a tool that powers the next generation to achieve greater unity and equality. It is all in your hands and your hand -held devices.

Thank you.

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