It’s not a political question, but you can bet people have strong opinions about social media. Isn’t it harmful to teens? Don’t they stop talking to their friends because they’re so involved with the apps on their phones? Aren’t kids often victims of bullying online? Using social media can lead to suicide! In fact, if you do a little research, it turns out that social media use among children and teens actually has more of a positive effect than negative.
It makes sense if you think about it. What do we use social media for? Relationships.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, social media has served as a safety net for anyone stuck in quarantine or isolation. When schools are closed, it provides a way for students to stay in touch with their friends. If there are times a best friend isn’t available in person to help through times of stress, illness, or loss, social media can offer a crucial connection.
Being friends with a group on any social media platform means you are part of that community. Every positive comment or like makes you feel supported. When you look at it that way, it makes sense that strengthening relationships supports mental and emotional health.
A positive side of social media that you might not consider is that it can build self-confidence, especially for young people. For anyone involved in healthy relationships with friends, romantic partners, or family, online communication tends to be positive and supportive. Users of all ages post plenty of content, but it is the young who are most engaged with visual media. They post selfies and YouTube videos of themselves singing or talking. They learn about feelings—their own and their friends’.
While you might assume kids use social media to disengage from in-person communication, researchers believe it complements the normal growth and development of adolescents. It may even benefit youth struggling with sexual identity, helping them find others with similar experiences and reducing feelings of loneliness or discomfort. Group members frequently compliment and encourage each other. Since comments are visible to everyone in their social groups, those who post and those who comment feel supported.
There’ve even been times when a teenager or young person struggling with suicidal thoughts posts a call for help on social media. Friends are likely to reach out to offer support and even alert crisis response teams who can intervene and save lives.
Negative impact of Social Media
Because social media, by its very nature, eliminates face-to-face interaction, it sometimes offers a sense of power through anonymity. Children and teenagers might not know who or how many people see their posts. They feel empowered to say whatever they want, regardless of how their messaging might affect others. Sometimes they do it to hurt or shame classmates, friends, or to make someone jealous. And sometimes they do it just because they can.
Social Media and bullying
Driven by sensational news reports about suicides caused by online abuse, cyberbullying has become a part of our everyday vocabulary. Researchers found that 59% of teens said they’ve had negative experiences through social media they consider bullying. Levels of harassment vary, though. Name-calling and spreading false rumors are the most common, but one in four teens has received explicit images of classmates or had their own sexually explicit images shared without permission. Online harassment includes physical threats and constant questioning that feels like stalking.
Most states have laws that address bullying, both in person and online. Schools are required to have policies in place that describe bullying behavior and consequences. Victims of any form of online abuse should document offensive posts by taking screenshots that include the date and sender’s name before deleting them. If you feel that you or your child has been a victim of bullying, take action by reporting it to school and local authorities.
You will be relieved to learn, contrary to popular belief, most teens exposed to cyberbullying do not die by suicide. Although there may be a relationship, and bullying could be one of many factors, the causes of suicide are far more complicated. That said, if you worry that someone who is being bullied is also showing signs of suicidal ideation, call 800-273-8255, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website, or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Along with increased suicide rates, social media use is blamed for memory loss, difficulty sleeping, and shortened attention spans. But are those accusations based on facts or opinions? It depends on how data was collected and interpreted. How do we really know if social media use exacerbates mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, or if those suffering from mental illness are more likely to use social media to avoid face-to-face interaction?
Even though the research isn’t clear, we shouldn’t frame the question, “Is social media is bad or good?” It would be more productive to think about how we can tap into it as something that’s already a part of young peoples’ lives and isn’t going away. We need to find ways schools can use social media in positive ways.
County and state health departments take advantage of the broad outreach available on so many platforms to push out public health messaging, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools could use social media to reach youth in the cyberworlds where they live. Posting information about mental health, coping skills, problem-solving, relationship building, and any other issues students need to learn about can become another positive way to use social media.
Yes, parents, you are in charge!
Parents are every child’s first and most important teachers. It is up to them to teach children right from wrong. If they expect their children to show respect and kindness in person, they should expect the same behavior online. Even though monitoring social media usage might seem to violate a teenager’s privacy, parents need to remember that adolescents don’t always make the best decisions. Talk to kids about how the anonymity of social media might make them feel powerful and willing to hurt others or feel hurt by someone else. Be proactive and teach kids about online etiquette and safety before they get in trouble and learn the hard way.
Parents might assume it’s the school’s responsibility to teach students how to stay safe online. But they should be involved at home. It is the parent’s role to teach their children about online safety and supervise them, especially since younger and younger children are learning to use social media to connect with friends and family members. Parents should educate themselves and their children on how to safely navigate social media sites.
If you wonder about changes in your child’s behavior after spending time online or an increase in time spent on social media, don’t ignore it. Be proactive. Have you ever noticed your teenager change or hide their screens when an adult is in the room? Find out why. Pay attention to any unexplained increase in the number of contacts a child has. Those changes might be clues that problems are brewing. Talk to your child openly if it seems their behavioral changes seem extreme. Depending on the situation, it might be necessary to consider getting professional help.
Be safe, not sorry
Social media provides platforms for us to connect in ways that have not been possible before. Being part of an online community might be the best way to keep in touch during the pandemic or other natural disasters. Just remember not to believe everything you read because you see it in print. Teach your children to be discretionary consumers. They should know to consider the source of a post or news article. Who is the author? Is it a genuine update about friends or family? Is it factual information from a reliable news source or someone sharing their own opinions? Make decisions based on facts, not someone else’s fiction.
Everyone—adults and children—must always remember that any content, pictures, text, links, or anything else posted on a social media site is stored somewhere in cyberspace. Never post anything you wouldn’t want to see turn up in court or published in a news article. Those skeletons in e-closets are virtually impossible to bury.
A Culture of Caring: A Suicide Prevention Guide for Schools (K-12) was created as a resource for educators who want to know how to get started and what steps to take to create a suicide prevention plan that will work for their schools and districts. It is written from my perspective as a school principal and survivor of suicide loss, not an expert in psychology or counseling. I hope that any teacher, school counselor, psychologist, principal, or district administrator can pick up this book, flip to a chapter, and easily find helpful answers to the questions they are likely to have about what schools can do to prevent suicide.