Social Media has become a real threat to adolescents and children, the latest studies reveal. It has become an addictive tool, especially after the pandemic, where Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat were the only means of escape from routine. Specialists insist on parental guidance in this matter and say that parents should censor their children’s accounts on social media. Many papers have proved the efficacy of their follow-up and observations.
What is the impact of social media on teens, and how to protect them from danger? These are the two main questions that we will answer in this report. As an approach to help young men and ladies survive in this virtual world, we will reveal the latest studies and talk to specialists in this matter.
The Evolution of Social Media
The phenomenon of social media began in 1997, and the site "Six Degrees.com" was the pioneer. It gave the opportunity for users to create profiles, comment on news, and exchange messages with other participants. Although the site "Six Degrees.com" was the pioneer in social networking, "My Space.com" has opened wide horizons and achieved tremendous success since its inception in 2003. Then successively began the emergence of other social media apps, but the milestone was the emergence of ‘Facebook.com’ which enabled users to share information and allow friends to access their profiles.
These social media tools have provided many features such as instant messaging, public and private messaging, and multimedia sharing of voice, video, image, and files, which has attracted millions of users from around the world. Then, many kinds of social media tools popped up, and are now highly surfed by children and adolescents, especially Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and WhatsApp, where the use of such social media apps has become a daily routine in modern times.
Some scholars define social media as virtual places where communication happens through dialogue, chat, comment, photography, and interaction between users, that can take place without borders. The internet is described as a virtual space because it is considered a free place where no one owns it. Its services are created and programmed by major companies to gather the largest number of users and friends who share similar activities and interests, searching for more friendships, and the interests and activities of other people with whom they share intellectual goals.
Examples of Social Media Victims
Many adolescents suffered a lot because of social media, which affected their lives in one way or another. Below are some case studies that Majalla was informed of. Let us discover what happened to Lea and Rami, two contradictable examples of the consequences of social media, which reveal a harmful trial in the virtual world.
We will start with Lea’s story, as her mother Zeina (names have been changed to protect the persons) narrated the hard experience with TikTok.
Zeina did not know that the gift she gave her daughter on her birthday would write a cruel and painful story. A story that has started on January 20, 2020, when the innocent girl blew out her 14 candles. A date that Zeina and her family will not forget, as she revealed to Majalla. Zeina said, "We were happy that our daughter has become a young lady, being an obedient lovely girl, conservative as we have raised her up, and smart at school. Her father and I decided to give her a cell phone on her birthday, knowing that she used to like watching YouTube channels with the aim of being updated on the latest scientific discoveries, that she was passionate about. But from the moment Lea received the phone and created accounts on the communication sites, the tragedy began.”
The fourteen-year-old made new friends through the application, which exposed her to several risks.
Zeina told us how her daughter gradually began to isolate herself few months after creating the account and described Lea's "hostile" behavior with her seven-year-old brother. She also told us how she started repeating new phrases like "I hate you", "I do not belong to this family", "I want to leave the house", "I don't want to live anymore"... She also started to skip family gatherings, refusing to engage, especially with older cousins. Apparently, she lost any interest in continuing her studies, and she retreated in a way that alarmed her school administration and forced them to intervene and ask: What happened to the outstanding student?
Lea spent months alone in her room, where she allowed no one to enter; Then her condition steadily worsened, until she became more hostile, and started saying bad words, and discussing strange topics such as deliberating on the meaning of "empty" life, the importance of death and the necessity of "ending one’s life".
“Here, we had to do something,” her mother said. “We began to monitor her accounts, and we found that she was involved with a group of people, from a different culture, who “poisoned” my little girl’s mind. They used to discuss the need to get rid of life, and how to discover happiness after death, and other details that she described as "satanic". She said, "We're not proud that we had to steal her phone, but we had to save her”. It had been months by then, and we've been watching her fall apart before our eyes.”
Then the mother concluded, we lived a nightmare that is over now, and we saved our baby at the last minute.
Today, Lea is undergoing intensive psychotherapy, surrounded by family attention. “We are getting her back now after we almost lost her,” said Zeina.
(We couldn't talk to Lea, because her psychiatrist preferred she doesn’t discuss her case since she is still under treatment).
Another story Majalla recorded was of a 17-year-old boy, who turned his WhatsApp into a storage room for his classmates' pictures with indecent videos. His family described to us, how "Rami" would lure girls to send their pictures, then threaten them by asking for more. His father told Majalla, "My son became a criminal at a young age. I wanted to tell his story as a kind of awareness to all parents emphasizing the need to monitor their children's accounts. The Internet is killing our children. I cannot describe the disappointment when I received a call from officials informing me that my son is threatening girls.”
We spoke to Rami, who described his experience as "frightening when my family found out." He said, “Maybe I wanted to prove that I am a man by controlling others… I don’t know. But I made a mistake and I admit that I used social media in a dangerous way. I hurt the feelings of many, and I was a source of terror to my colleagues. Today, I apologize, I didn't realize at that time the seriousness of the matter."
Among many studies related to the effects of social media on adolescents, we chose the most recent, including research conducted by the University of Queensland in Australia in August 2021, which underscored the need to limit the time spent on the internet, because of the great impact on the mental health of adolescents. Researchers linked adverse effects on adolescents' mental health to screen time of more than two hours a day for girls and four hours a day for boys. The global study looked at data on more than 577,000 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 15 in 42 high-income countries.
Professor Asad Khan, research leader, at the University of Queensland's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, said: “We found that there are some benefits within the first hour of daily screen use, but the adverse effects of recreational screen use on mental health begin after 75 minutes for girls and 105 minutes for boys."
Another study was released in April 2021 and was published by the Pew Research Center in Washington. The study revealed that 84 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 who are active on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, or any other social media, were exposed to excessive effects in terms of depression, obesity, unhealthy diet, and reduced physical and cognitive abilities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting confinement, social media provided an outlet for people to connect with family and friends, says psychiatrist Patrice Harris, MD, former president of the American Medical Association.
“But in the case of adolescents, it can be hard to step back and realize that most things posted on social media are just the highlights in other people’s lives, not everything that happens behind the scenes. This can affect teens' and young adults’ sense of identification, appreciation, and belonging. It can definitely increase anxiety and feelings of insecurity as they discover who they are," she explains.
Harris emphasized that very little is known about how social media use affects the lives of adolescents and young adults in the long term, but some emerging research indicates that it is causing harm to their mental health and well-being. She continued, “mental health experts say they are concerned about the pressures that social media is placing on this age group.”
In an interview conducted by Majalla with Carol Saadeh, a psychotherapist and university professor specializing in adolescent mental health, she focused on the need for parents to monitor their children on social media to protect them from dangers.
As applications such as TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat (the most used among teenagers) do not protect their privacy, it makes them vulnerable to contact with others in a direct manner that may threaten their mental health, in terms of their exposure to sexual harassment, bullying or cyber extortion; As for the TikTok application, Saadeh said that it has been banned in many countries due to the serious challenges that threaten the lives of children, where teenagers and children are required to perform dangerous challenges or shoot seductive videos.
She believes that the danger lies in the extent to which the child or teenager is affected by the amount of interaction on his page, with the aim of forming a fan club, for example. "This means that he\she is building their images incorrectly, as well as their personalities. Self-image and self-confidence are built according to the interaction they receive on these applications.”
Saadeh believes that this image is illusory, and is not based on reality, but rather on ideals, due to the trend spread on applications, such as unrealistic weight loss and body image and appearing in an alluring way. "This is where the problems and diseases of bulimia and other similar diseases might appear, as well as symptoms of anxiety and depression disorders, and these have frightening effects in the long run."
Regarding the adolescent’s identification of own identity, she considers that the adolescent may suffer mainly from the inability to determine this the right way. Here, she pointed out the dangers of “image formation on a fake background that does not resemble the image on reality.”
She described the consequences of not focusing on the "ego" and self-love, where she warned of effects that may lead to suicidal behavior or addiction to drugs or addiction on the internet, and then to a dangerous and harmful social phobia. She also revealed that it is not healthy for a child to engage in the world of social media, rather “it is necessary to avoid creating an account.”
As for adolescents, Saadeh stressed the need for parental guidance, to follow up with their children, and observe their accounts, and to discover who they are communicating with; It is also worth preparing the child for this virtual world, making him aware of his body and forming his image before entering this stage of adolescence.
Regarding cyber extortion and cyberbullying that have recently increased, Saadeh explained that extortion is caused by the breach of privacy that applications do not protect. She also pointed to the absence of parental guidance here, and their ignorance sometimes of the expected risks, which are often due to their lack of awareness of the seriousness of the matter. "The online world is the easiest, rather the only way to reach the victim."
On the other hand, Saadeh sees many positive effects of social media, if being observed by parents, and limited by a specific time, in order to avoid addiction. "Among the advantages of applications, is the entertainment, informative and educative part, as well as the practical aspect by motivating useful challenges such as workout, and food guidance, in case of compliance with appropriate influencers."
Technology is a double-edged sword, one that takes the adolescent on a good ride in the global village, where it broadens his horizons and updates his information in a mobile library. While the other edge of the sword could take him as a hostage of complications with severe implications. Adolescence is the most delicate stage, where guidance, observance, and control, are the main keys to achieve a normal and balanced society. Even in the most developed countries, studies have emerged stressing the need to monitor teenage accounts on social media. Do not be ashamed to observe your child's account, and do not consider it an infringement of his or her privacy, rather this act will protect him/her from the dangers of the digital world.