Health & Psychology

The Impact of Social Media on Young People

When do students get time to shut out the outside world?

Contributor: Stuart Byfield, Assistant Principal of the Middle School, International School of Zug & Luzern (ISZL)

I would imagine as a parent of a pre-teen or teenage student that for the majority of you, your own school experience was fairly similar to mine. You would travel to school by whichever means, do your best to get through the school day, perhaps be involved in something after school or an outside club and return to your home at the end of the day. This is where your day with the ‘outside world’ finished.  Perhaps you might have done something with a friend in the evening or perhaps even call a friend on the landline – although for many of us this was limited because the phone was in the hallway and you didn’t want your parents listening in! Ultimately your day outside of the family home was complete and that adolescent pressure and need to perform for peer group acceptance and affirmation was done until the cycle began again the following day.

Compare that experience to that of our current group of 11-14-year olds. When does their down time and their break from that external pressure come? When can they just ‘be’? The pressures of a Middle School day remain; the need to feel affirmed and accepted amongst a group of peers is alive and well just as it was for us. However, for some of these children the breathing space from this no longer arrives at 4pm. No longer is the end of the school day providing our early teens with respite from those adolescent pressures.

The wonders of modern technology and the associated numerous social media platforms, pressurizes some of our students into feeling they need to continually project a perception of how ‘wonderful’ their life is. Conversations held with some Middle School students at the International School of Zug and Luzern (ISZL) this year highlight that affirmation received by the number of ‘likes’ on an Instagram post is seen as a greater measure of success than verbal or written affirmation from parents, teachers or peers.

We have Middle School students who are involved in our competitive sports teams, attending outside music lessons, working outside of school in their service learning groups as well achieving well academically. You would imagine that these busy students who are achieving great success across a number of areas in their lives would have a positive self-image and self-belief. However, we are increasingly seeing students ‘image of self’ having negative connotations. Some of them are stating that they are not doing enough when comparing themselves to their peers – a perception based not on reality but on a reflection what they think their friend’s lives are like.

The blame for this cannot all be laid at social media and the use of technological devices door – but they do not necessarily provide a support mechanism for promoting positive self-image. For some of our students checking their notifications is the first thing they do upon waking and the last thing they do before going to bed. We are still developing an understanding of the power, positivity and benefit modern media can bring, but by the same token I believe with this current generation we are really starting to see the implications it has on the self-image of our adolescents and early teens. As phones and access to social media are starting at an increasingly earlier age, that sense of pressure to project an image is starting to creep into those later primary/elementary years.

One can argue that the fault, and therefore solution, lies not with social media but in addressing our teens appreciation of self.  However, I don’t believe that solely supporting our children with their perception of self is enough. It’s like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. Let’s take Mackenzie Ziegler, aged 13, as an example.  Mackenzie has 9.4 million followers on Instagram of which a number are our Middle Schoolers. Her Instagram posts project her as a fashion, dance and music icon developing the perception of her 13-year-old life as mixture of fashion shoots, partying with friends and time at the beach. Our adolescents see this as a true reflection of her life – there are no images of her completing her homework, feeling alone, arguments with her friends or her being upset and frustrated with her parents. Just as with the majority of social media posts Mackenzie’s projection of life does not include the full picture.  We can’t blame Mackenzie or the people behind her – as adults how many of us post on social media when we are at our lowest? That moment when the dog has eaten the dinner and your youngest has vomited over the kitchen floor – not many of us are sharing this image on Facebook. If, as responsible adults, we’re not painting a true picture of what our lives are truly like and those online celebrities our adolescents are following are not…how can we expect our early teens to react? Across all platforms our children are subjected to images and posts of these unobtainable, perfect lives and they compare them to their own – that comparison is rarely going to have a positive impact on their own image of self and feeling of self-worth.

It is a pretty bleak picture. Or is it? Not necessarily. As a starting point, we have to work together at home and at school to develop an understanding that the majority of social media is not a true reflection of real life. That as humans we naturally ‘cherry-pick’ the best parts to promote the image we want others to see. We also must enable our children with the opportunity to just ‘be’; we have to provide the respite from the world outside because they will not look always look for it. This means setting boundaries and times for when the devices and access to social media are turned off and are out of sight. This is the one age where it is difficult enough to work out who you are and your place in this world without doing so feeling as though the world is watching. They may tell you otherwise but they are still children and they need time to be who they want to be without thinking about a judgement or whether what they are doing is an opportunity for an Instagram post. They may not thank you. Now. But maybe someday, in the not too distant future, they may come to recognise that the space you gave them to be themselves, to learn who they are, was a necessary support mechanism and aid in the development of a positive self-image.

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