By Sean Franklin
Rates of depression among young people are reaching record highs. Colleges should be more concerned about the mental health of their students, especially in the face of increased teen suicide rates.
Many theories have been put forth to try and explain this rise in suicide rates. Some theorize that the environment in which today’s teens are growing up is more stressful than the environment of young people in the past. Many of today’s teens came of age during the recession of 2008, and have thus grown up with a sense of economic insecurity. Some blame emotional coddling from helicopter parenting, others blame “safe spaces” and the rise of political correctness, leading to teens not being able to deal with stress in their life. Still, others allege that the increase is mostly statistical noise, brought on by a rise in the reporting of mental illnesses, not necessarily by an increase in the illnesses themselves. I want to turn the spotlight to an often overlooked, yet important factor – social media.
Today’s youths spend less time interacting with their friends in person and more time interacting with people online, via social media platforms. One might think the social media age would make us more connected – the internet allows us to reach out to a wider network of people than we would on the corporeal plane. However, often the opposite happens; social media can be uniquely isolating, allowing users to create superficial connections with a wider network of people. Social media prevents teenagers from forming the genuine connections that one would from spending more time interacting with people in person. Young people, whose minds are still developing emotionally, desperately need those genuine connections. It is those connections that help them work through their emotions, and make sense of the world around them.
This is not all just conjecture, it is supported by evidence. Research by The Atlantic shows that since the release of the iPhone, young people who spent more time on their phones were more likely to say they felt lonely, isolated or unhappy. In another study by the United Kingdom Royal Society for Public Health, a survey was conducted regarding teens’ levels of anxiety, depression, self-confidence and body image. When measured against average teens, those who use social media networks more often were markedly more likely to be anxious or depressed. These teens also had lower levels of self-confidence and body image.
I will not go so far as to say that correlation implies causation. It could be that teens who were predisposed towards anxiety or depression simply use social media more, amplifying those with pre-existing conditions. However, evidence clearly suggests that increased social media use has a negative effect on the mental health of today’s young people.
Social media has a unique and ultimately detrimental ability to create a false reality of what a person’s life is like. People, consciously or unconsciously, omit from social media anything that is not cool, happy or a representation of their best life. What you see on social media is a glorified version of a person’s life, a version that only represents the very best life has to offer. It omits the bad, uncomfortable the awkward moments with a never-ending wave of picture-perfect moments. Think about the last time you posted to Instagram; you probably agonized over that photo. The lighting was not right, the filters were not “on brand,” you just didn’t look perfect. Social media users edit their lives in order to create a seemingly perfect façade. Excessive social media use allows a teen to live in a socially constructed false reality. It is easy to become enmeshed in that reality and to lose sight of the fact that everybody faces adversity and hardship in their lives. And when you lose sight of that, it is easy to sink into depression.
Personally, I have come to deeply resent the role that social media plays in our society. It gives us the ability to present the world with a false veneer of perfection, a sanitized, unblemished view of our lives. We see everyone else’s kodak moments and mentally compare them to the outtakes from our own lives. When it looks like everyone else in the world is happy and thriving, it’s no wonder so many teens have mental health issues. Social media has made us more connected than ever before, but it’s driving us further and further away from reality.
Sean Franklin, FCRH ’21, is an urban studies major from Alexandria, Virginia.