Pre-Collegiate Global Health Review
Examining Long-Term Implications of Teen Social Media Use
John Corso, Gonzaga College High School, Washington DC, USA
The COVID-19 pandemic has had myriad repercussions. Teenage social media use increased globally during the pandemic, becoming a lifeline to teens in isolation, but in turn fueling a rise in social media addiction (Marciano et al., 2022). Teenage mental health has also suffered; a meta-analysis of global pandemic teenage mental health studies indicates a near doubling of depression and anxiety rates, especially among older teenagers (Racine et al., 2021).
Adolescent brains are not fully formed until 25, so teenagers are much more susceptible to anxiety and depression (Casey et al., 2008). Pressures, crises, and frustrations can be distorted, and seismic changes like the pandemic weigh heavily on the teenage mind. Teenage brains also have a high affinity for reward, such that a source of satisfaction like a social media site that gives prizes for how long they stay on, can be particularly dangerous (Galván, 2013). Social media poses a bifold risk; it spreads harmful ideas, such as notions of self-hatred and self-harm, and can be highly addictive.
A hallmark of social media sites is that anyone can post. However, social media providers lack the capacity to properly and immediately screen uploaded content for issues, with platforms like TikTok instead relying on often-problematic human flagging (Contreras, 2021). The absence of reliable policing on the site allows the spread of dangerous trends among teenagers. For example, one challenge on TikTok coaxed individuals to hallucinate by overdosing on Benadryl (Kriegel et al., 2021). The milk-crate challenge prompted individuals to walk across a tower of milk crates, resulting in injuries (Valinsky, 2021). TikTok restricted access to these posts only after these harms were publicized.
Self-esteem and body image issues also can arise from social media: a biopsychosocial examination of teenage social media use and body perception showed a correlation between social media use and body dissatisfaction among adolescents (especially females) (Rodgers et al., 2020).
Another danger lies in the algorithms that work to keep people using the app. According to a leaked internal document from TikTok, the algorithm determines what will best compel users to keep scrolling, scoring videos based on likes, comments, and how long they are played (Smith, 2021). This algorithm is effective; 22% of TikTok users use TikTok more than one hour a day and an average session lasts 10.85 minutes (Biznext, 2018; Dean, 2022). In addition, the app is opened, on average, 4.7 times per day (Biznext, 2018). TikTok’s algorithm has been shown to upregulate (increase activity in) the default mode network and ventral tegmental area. These parts of the brain are partially responsible for reward, memory, and addiction, which suggests a neurological basis for why TikTok is so captivating (Su et al., 2021). Social isolation, a feature of the pandemic response, has been shown to exacerbate the seemingly addictive nature of TikTok (Zhang et al., 2019).
The problem is clear; teenagers’ use of social media to stay connected could make them more isolated from each other and put them in a world of potentially dangerous content. The issue here is not social media itself, but rather our understanding of it. Social media companies are trying to sell a service to the largest audience possible. We, as users, must make reasonable decisions about how we partake in it. The problem is that we often do not see social media as a service sold for consumption and ignore its algorithmic nature.
How do we mitigate this? Since social media can cause addiction-like behaviors, we should examine what counteracts addiction. Perhaps by enriching the lives of teenagers, we might be able to safeguard them from addiction to social media. Improvements could include more school time set aside for in-person social interaction, or more education on the dangers of social media. In any case, we must act. The pandemic has drastically increased teenagers’ social media use and this could impact the proper development of their minds and harm their mental health, and that is a global health threat well worth our concern.
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