Arshad Shaikh looks at a recent study carried out in the UK on the effect of social media on the young and concludes that social media is having a particularly toxic influence on adolescents leading to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Society needs to save our young generation from the ill effects of social media and find a solution to this challenge as approaches such as prohibition and “zero screen time” are not practical and doomed to fail. Detoxifying social media for youngsters is an uphill task but will have to be undertaken right away.

Data shows that globally, the average time spent by a person on social media is 2 hours and 25 minutes. If we assume a life expectancy of 70 years then the average person will spend about six years on social media in his/her life span, starting from age 16. Ninety-nine per cent of all social media usage is on mobile phones. That makes 4.43 billion people on the planet, more than half of the entire population of the earth.

In the United States, 5 out of 10 children own a smartphone by the age of 11 and nearly 9 out of 10 teenagers have their own mobile devices. It may be assumed that a similar pattern of ownership of mobile phones exists among children and teenagers from the affluent class in other countries. A Pew Research Centre report of 2018 found that 45% of teenagers in America used the internet almost constantly and that they were ‘forever online’.

The same report also tried to find the effect of social media on the lives of teens. Among these teenagers who gave a negative assessment of social media – 27% thought it resulted in bullying and rumour spreading, and 17% felt it harmed relationships and lacked personal contact. Fifteen per cent thought social media gave an unrealistic view of others’ lives, and 14% felt it caused distractions and addiction. Twelve per cent saw social media as a source of peer pressure, 4% thought it caused mental health issues while 3% felt it led to drama with 12% citing other negative effects.

With such enormous usage by a large section of the population and the growing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide, a detailed study to find the relationship between social media and mental well-being was the need of the hour. Four researchers from Cambridge, Oxford, University College, London and Radboud University (Netherlands) came out with their findings on “the relationship between social media use and life satisfaction changes across adolescent development”. The study authored by Orben, Przybylski, Blakemore and Kievit has been published by Nature Communications titled “Windows of developmental sensitivity to social media”.

KEY FINDINGS

The study focused on the relationship between social media use and life satisfaction changes across different age groups of adolescent children. The term ‘life satisfaction changes’ used in the study can be interpreted as feelings of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. The study was carried out over two large data samples from the UK, comprising 84,011 participants (10–80 years old).

The research team also carried out a longitudinal study in which 17,409 participants (10–21 years old) were repeatedly examined to detect any changes in their response that might occur over a period of time. Those studied were asked how satisfied they were with life and their social media usage on a typical day. They were surveyed for 8 years, up to seven times from 2011 and 2018.

The longitudinal study indicated different sensitivity levels to social media usage during these particular age windows.

Examining the cross-sectional relationship between self-reported estimates of social media use and life satisfaction ratings, the study concludes that the relationship is most negative in younger adolescents. Furthermore, the study points out that it is only during this period of adolescence that there is a difference in this negative relationship between social media usage and feelings of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness.

In other words, the effect of social media is more pronounced in girls between ages 11-13 & 19 and boys between ages 14-15 & 19.  It was observed that during these years, the more adolescents consume their favourite apps on social media, the worse they feel about life and themselves the following year. Decreases in life satisfaction ratings also occur with increased estimated social media use, however, these were not associated with age or sex.

It means the relationship between increased usage of social media and a heightened feeling of depression is uniform and not confined to a particular gender or age group. To summarise – “social media and adolescence are an explosive combination”.

WHY ADOLESCENCE?

The study was motivated by the large degree of uncertainty “about how social media use relates to well-being”. Meta-analysis (examination of data from a number of independent studies of the same subject, in order to determine overall trends) could identify only “small or negligible negative links between social media use and well-being” while the experimental evidence was mixed.

The study says, “Adolescence represents a period of profound biological, psychological, and social development. It has been proposed that substantial biological changes in the social brain make adolescence a sensitive period for social development, self-perception, and social interaction. Adolescence is also a time of cognitive development, especially in domains such as emotional regulation, planning, and response inhibition. In parallel, most adolescents go through major sociocultural changes and life events such as moves from school to university or work. Such biological, psychological, and social changes magnify the influence of an adolescent’s social environment and make them more attuned to how they are perceived by peers and the broader community. It is therefore plausible that these processes heighten adolescents’ sensitivity to the interactive, communicative, and self-portraying nature of social media.”

The researchers aver, “Females experience pubertal bodily changes earlier than do males, which can provoke further downstream social changes. Further, female life satisfaction drops earlier in adolescence and the risk of certain mental health problems such as depression, self-harm and eating disorder is higher in adolescent females than in males.”

NEED FOR A HOLISTIC SOLUTION

Our future is the hands of our young generation. Strengthening and protecting the young from waywardness and depression is our responsibility. Many parents implement what they term as ‘media-ban’ for their children; some call it ‘zero-screen-time’. But these steps, desirable as they may sound, are doomed to fail as children are smart enough to find ways and means to side-step that ban and maintain the screen-time they desire.

There are reports that China has passed an order that youngsters below 18 are allowed to play only a total of three hours of video games per week. Other countries need to look closely at the “Online Safety Bill” introduced in the British Parliament last month that aims to “protect children from harmful content such as pornography and limit people’s exposure to illegal content, while protecting freedom of speech. It will require social media platforms, search engines and other apps and websites allowing people to post their own content to protect children, tackle illegal activity and uphold their stated terms and conditions”.

Detoxifying social media is an uphill task. Reducing media time for youngsters is easier said than done. We must remember that social media content and their format for consumption is a reflection of the overall worldview and value-system of society. We cannot isolate social media from the moral abyss into which society has fallen. Reformation of society and restoration of moral values is the only way to detoxify social media. All else will prove to be an exercise in futility unless we address the root cause of the problem.

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