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How much of a problem is social media, and how do we fix it?

Students say their phones breed insecurity, unrealistic comparisons

Editor’s note: While School News Network always prioritizes student voice in our articles, we know there is so much more to tell. We believe to truly tell the stories that need to be told, we should first and foremost elevate students’ ideas, opinions and experiences. We want to know: What is school really like for them? What do they enjoy? What needs to change? What are issues that need to be addressed? We spoke with 10 high schoolers from seven of the districts we cover — urban, suburban and rural — to get their thoughts on what their everyday experiences are like. This is the fourth installment of six parts of our conversation with them.

All districts — In our extended discussion with students about the everyday issues they struggle with, nothing prompted more opinions than the impact of social media — almost all of it negative, in their view. TikTok, Instagram and other popular sites make them more insecure, cause them to compare themselves to others and make it harder to learn. We didn’t even have to ask; they brought it up spontaneously in response to the question, What do you wish people understood better about being a high school student now?

Terrell, junior

Terrell, junior: “Maybe not a lot of people realize this, but the way social media and technology is, we really have changed. Generations before us, technology really wasn’t a thing that much so, you know, they couldn’t just say, ‘Hey girl, what you doing?’ (Laughter) … I feel like now high school has become just this place where insecurities are born, because some people just don’t know how to talk to people, or are too scared to talk to people. And it just tears them apart.” 

Kerim, junior

Kerim, junior: “I feel like what social media and what phones do is it makes people more antisocial. So you’re not willing to talk to people face-to-face, but then it also adds a layer of insecurity. Just like (looking at) your Instagram feed, and you’re seeing people that you would have never seen 10 years prior; you would have never even known that person existed. But now you’re looking at these beauty standards and people looking happy and creating unimaginable wealth that you wouldn’t have seen on a day-to-day basis. And you look at yourself and (you’re) like, ‘Oh, that 19-year-old is making $100,000 a year,’ or ‘Oh, this 20-year-old looks this good, and I don’t look that good.’ And so you’re adding a root cause of even more insecurity … while also simultaneously making it harder to talk to people about it. … You can literally be in the same room as somebody at your house and guys will be texting each other or sending each other snaps (on Snapchat). 

“I read a couple days ago, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy.’ I feel like that literally is true, especially with how social media has impacted that. At least we’re getting to the place where we’re realizing, ‘OK, this is bad.’ So now we’re taking a step back and trying to look at the bigger picture.”

McKenna, senior

McKenna, senior: “It also can add educational pressure. I like watching organization videos or study videos or productivity videos. So you see these people in either high school or college, being able to study for four hours and getting A’s on tests. I don’t have that time in my day to do that, nor the motivation to, because of my schedule. So these ideas of, ‘Oh, this girl takes beautiful notes, she has all A’s, she’s going to a D1 college,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, how am I supposed to get there now? How did she do that and how can I do that?’ But they never tell us. They’re always like, ‘This is my life. I’m not going to tell you how I got there though.’

“I feel like social media is requiring us to be jealous of each other. … It’s like you’re always striving to be better than the person you see.” 

Kelvin, sophomore

Kelvin, sophomore: “When you’re on your phone, you keep comparing to other people, but it can hit twice as hard. I know some people that, they’re on their phone maybe three hours (after) they’re done getting off school. So their grades can be maybe C’s, D’s, or maybe they’re failing some classes. And they say, ‘I’m going to work, I’m going to take time and I’m gonna do something about it.’ But they just end up on their phone and they waste more and more time, and they just get stuck in this tunnel that leads to nowhere.”

Karl, senior

Karl, senior: “It’s important to remember that social media is a business. It’s not there to help you, it’s there to make money, and that’s their priority. So they’re gonna try as many ways as possible to keep you on, and that’s definitely affecting us.” 

Joel, junior

Joel, junior: “Personally, I’ve been disconnected from social media; growing up with it I’ve always felt a disconnect from it, which is what separated me from the people at school. … I see (people) on social media all the time. They’re trying to get the ‘likes.’ But (if) they get one hate comment or dislike, they’ll instantly remove the post because they feel like they’re being judged, and they’re so afraid to express themselves as an individual in public. … They try to paint that beautiful, future perfect life that isn’t possible. It’s just a dream, the American dream.” 

Kaymin, junior

Kaymin, junior: “We grew up with social media gaining this traction, gaining this force. Now it’s such a prominent factor in our lives that we can’t help but compare ourselves (to others). I don’t use Instagram that much but I open it and I’ll see a picture of (someone) who’s graduated at the top of her class, got, like, a 4.9 GPA, and I (am) like, ‘Oh, I want to be that.’… Especially for teenagers, I feel like because of social media there’s a lot of standards that we’re supposed to meet. It’s really discouraging when you don’t meet them, even though a lot of them are unattainable.” 

Emma, senior

Emma, senior: “The comparison also creates a lot of competition between your classmates: who can get the better grade and the higher GPA. It’s just like playing the game at school, trying to get that highest grade and that’s, like, all you care about is competing with your classmates — you have to be the best, you have to be the most successful.” 

SNN: There was a big study that just came out about adolescents and teenagers that said anxiety and depression are way up. How much do you think social media is contributing to those kinds of problems?

Terrell, junior: “When I scroll through social media, I see all my friends having fun. It makes me feel like, ‘Why am I not doing that? Why is my life so different from yours?’” 

Seeing others’ good test scores, he added, “makes me feel incompetent because I’m trying my hardest. When we try our hardest, sometimes we can’t reach our goals and others can. That can be a really big stress factor. Recently I’ve been having a lot of headaches (due to) stress, because I feel like I can’t be the best person I can be because I’m too busy being compared to other people.”

Karl, senior: ”High school is definitely the prime time for social media, because we’re still developing who we are as a person (and) what we’re going to become, and we’re still coming to terms with the fact that we can’t be the best at everything. And that’s exactly what social media shows us: that you can be the best at everything. … That’s all social media shows, what people want you to see. And so (you’re) comparing yourself with people that are only able to show you the best of them.”

‘Especially for teenagers, I feel like because of social media there’s a lot of standards that we’re supposed to meet. It’s really discouraging when you don’t meet them, even though a lot of them are unattainable.’

– Kaymin, high school junior

Emma, senior: “(I see) a lot of high, unrealistic standards that we’re all constantly trying to reach … I have OCD, like everything has to be perfect. So I hold myself to even higher standards. And then when I don’t reach these unrealistic standards, it’s like a downward spiral, especially with my mental health. And I feel like a lot of students go through that.” 

Kerim, junior: “Especially TikTok, you’re swiping on videos, swiping on videos, and you don’t even realize 30 minutes were passing. Over time, it seems normal. What ends up actually happening is your attention span is getting fried. … Your brain is overloaded. So we have to go to class, sit still and not talk. You have to listen to a teacher talk for 45 minutes, and you have five-minute breaks. We do that six times in a day. What ends up happening is that you can’t do it, because your brain is just wired differently now.

“This is a policy issue where government has to start getting involved and say, ‘You can’t mess with kids like this.’ Just like back in the day when the government had to get involved in TV and say, ‘Hey, you can’t program this for kids; kids shouldn’t be watching it at this time.’ … I feel like the way this gets fixed is by having to put a limit and start saying, ‘You can’t have targeted ads (for young people).’ … They wouldn’t be able to make money that way. You kind of have to hit them where it hurts for them to start to make change that’s beneficial.”

Next installment: How safe do you feel in school, and what effect do school shootings have on you? 

Thank you to The New York Times for inspiring the format for this panel, which we used to elevate the voices of students.

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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