In recent years, the usage of social media has ballooned, especially among students. This has created the need for schools to design curricula which include instruction on how to be responsible online global citizens. Texting and messaging through social media have now become major modes of communication. Additionally, our digital lives have begun to bleed into the real world, effectively blurring the line between the two. Such ambiguity has created controversy as schools try to navigate through untrodden territory and seek to discern the boundary between loving, watchful guardian and Big Brother. There are questions about whether programs to mine students’ posts for concerning language are also inhibiting free speech and the right to privacy. Also on the minds of many is whether all of this engagement with social media is doing us more harm than good. I asked RHS students and teachers share their thoughts on the topic. Turns out, both groups had some similar concerns.
So, does social media have a positive or negative influence on student’s lives? According to junior Haley Klein, “Social media keeps me in touch with my friends and it’s entertaining. But on the other hand it makes me procrastinate a lot. Social media glamorizes things and can make you feel bad about yourself, but you don’t really know what anybody else is dealing with. So, it can make you feel like maybe you’re the only one dealing with some things, or that your life isn’t as great as other people’s, when in reality they’re only showing you what they want you to see.” Research confirms that this experience isn’t uncommon. In 2016, The University of Salford in the UK published a study which found that 50 percent of participants noted decreases in their quality of life as well as to self-esteem as a result of social media use. This depletion of self-confidence can have serious impacts on mental health. A 2016 University of Pittsburgh study also found that the rate of depression for frequent social media users is two to three times higher than that of less frequent users. This concept was a common thread throughout the responses of students and teachers alike. Junior Jordan Afromsky noted that social media is essentially “everyone’s highlight reel,” while Mrs. Richards, a RHS English teacher, commented that “the awareness of what everyone else is doing can lead to increased pressure and impact a kid’s self-confidence.” She added, “there is some truth to the adage, ‘What you don’t know, can’t hurt you.’” Others called out specific platforms as contributing more heavily to this negative comparison. Junior Reagan Neilson argued that Instagram in particular allows people to present others with “a warped reality of what they want you to see.” Her opinion aligns with a 2016 study conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health, which found that Instagram had the greatest negative net impact on users of the five platforms studied (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram), followed by Snapchat.
Suffering self-esteem isn’t the only thing schools fear in regards to social media. Cyberbullying is often cited as a danger connected to teens’ internet use, and many assume cyberbullying is a significant concern for schools. However, at RHS, it seems the prevalence of cyberbullying has diminished over the years. According to counselor Mr. Maye, “It used to be a bigger problem in the past, I think. Before we had HIB, before kids were aware of that. Now in the middle schools, the kids are taught what is and what is not appropriate. They see that there are consequences. I also try to teach the Peer Counselors that if you hear something that’s inappropriate, as uncomfortable as it makes you, you have to say something.” Klein also commented on the matter: “I have never witnessed actual cyberbullying on the internet. I think there’s a lot of joking, but it could be taken in a negative way. Also, when I view it, I don’t see it as cyberbullying, but you never know how the person getting that feels.”
Interestingly enough, history teacher Mr. LaFemina provided an alternative to this concept. He argues that while there is a crisis, it isn’t a crisis of social media, or even of young people in particular. He argues instead that while social media can be incredibly positive and has made a large impact on the success of social movements like March for Our Lives, “that very same platform, social media, has the power to–especially in its anonymity–fuel hatred. The more worrisome trend is that several studies have shown that YouTube and other platforms show you increasingly radicalized versions of what you see, not just what you already want to see. What you want to see fuels complacency, what you want to see if you want to take it up a notch fuels radicalization, which can be pretty scary.” He’s not wrong. According to a study conducted by Common Sense, while only 13 percent of teens have experienced cyberbullying at some point (and encouragingly, 23 percent have tried to help a cyberbullying victim), hate speech is on the rise. The percentage of students who often or sometimes encounter hate speech has increased from 57 percent to 64 percent between 2012 and 2018. And like Mr. LaFemina says, this online hate translates to the real world; this isn’t just a problem for teens. According to a study conducted by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, there was a 25 percent increase in hate crimes in the ten largest American cities between 2008 and 2017.
So, what does this all mean? Social media is incredibly powerful – it has the ability to both bring us together and tear us apart. With this in mind, how do we navigate a world complicated by technology? How do we behave in a world where we live half of our lives obscured by pixels and glass? A few teachers provided some personal insight. Mr. LaFemina noted that maybe the problem isn’t so much social media as it is society. He observed that “there’s always been layers of real-life mediated through different forms of communication, so this is our next piece and we just haven’t quite figured it out yet. Gossip has certainly existed before, but the anonymity is somewhat scary, and I guess once you have anonymity it can embolden people to be pretty crass. I’d rather minimize the blame on these tools and enhance education, openness, and transparency.” English teacher Mrs. DeTora suggested that we remain aware of our growing phone and social media addictions, because “anything can act as a positive in moderation.” Or, take advice from physics teacher Mr. Kott, who summed things up with these wise words: “I think it has the potential to be a net positive, but we’re not there yet. And I think the only way out is through.”
Graphic: Nicole Kye