In 1990, the Center for Disease Control began administering the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey (ABES). The survey is still being administered in participating high schools across the country, especially in large urban district high schools. One of the key findings in the latest report is centered around the virtual connections students are making through online environments. Students who felt virtually connected to family and/or friends had less sadness or hopelessness than those who did not feel connected, and they also reported a lower prevalence of poor mental health during the pandemic. These statistics match the recent Pew Research report indicating that 95% of teens surveyed use YouTube consistently, and 54% percent of teens surveyed said they would have difficulty giving up social media.
The high and consistent numbers of social media use among our youth are not surprising when considering the accessibility to screens today. Of those surveyed in the Pew Research report, 97% of Americans own a cell phone, and within that percentage, 100% of eighteen-year-olds have cell phones. The increased access to cell phones presents a trifecta of challenges. First and foremost is the increased opportunity for teens to be lured by predators, followed closely by vulnerability to cyberbullies. Finally, there is the detrimental impact that social media can have on ones' mental health to consider. Let’s break this down.
Predators often target kids using empathy. Kids sometimes feel isolated or out of place as they navigate their journey to adulthood, and predators know precisely how to approach them by relating to them, gaining their trust, and luring them into an unsafe environment. Predators know where to find teens too. Video game environments, online chats, and social media (like Instagram and TikTok) are hot spots for predators. Using tools to ensure you are aware of a child’s activity online can reduce the access a predator has to them. The same is true for cyber criminals and bullies. Cyberbullies are infamous for using social media to shame and target their victims. Cyberbullying can significantly impact a child or teen, including suicidal thoughts or actions. Cyberbullying has adverse psychological effects that can contribute to irritability, an outburst of anger, and isolation from friends and family. Recognizing these behaviors should prompt caregivers or educators to look further into the type of online activity kids are involved with. In doing so, children will be better protected from harm online.
The impact social media has on students' mental health cannot be underestimated. Adolescent mental health problems continue to increase, and social media is being identified as a contributor. With almost 97% of teens accessing social media, due diligence should be taken to monitor what they are doing and how long they spend online. The key to reducing the impact of online access is monitoring the access. Knowing what kids are doing online and for how long can provide critical clues to preventing mental health challenges and decrease the probability of becoming a victim.