Social media has revolutionized how people communicate and interact with peers and strangers. While this change has had a considerable positive effect of enabling near in-person communication, it has exposed individuals to indecent content and increased their risks of cyberbullying and sexual exploitation. Although any person can be a victim of cyberbullying, teenagers (13-17 years) are more vulnerable due to their still-developing brains, less exposure to the world, and frequent social media use. Excessive and improper use of social media platforms among teenagers leads to mental health problems, negative self-identity, and risky sexual behaviors. This paper starts with an introduction and comprehensively discusses points on the harmful effects of social media on teenagers by considering its effects on their mental health, identity, and sexuality. The paper will have a conclusion that wraps up the research findings. Although this paper will provide a comprehensive review on the adverse effects of social media on teenagers, it will not discuss n the benefits of these platforms.
Social Media on Teenagers Mental Health
Excessive use of social media can affect teenagers’ mental health leading to increased cases of anxiety and depression. Primack et al. (2017) undertook an inline survey to establish the effects of social medial on teenagers’ depression and anxiety levels. The researchers used a 4-item scale created by the Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS) to assess teenagers’ sensitivity to depression. The researchers’ fully-adjusted multivariable model that controlled for covariates and “time spent on social media” (TSSM) established that teenagers who used 7-11 social media platforms expressed three times more chances of reporting depression and anxiety symptoms compared to those using 0-2 platforms (Primack et al., 2017). Accordingly, the study shows a close link between time spent on social media ad increased levels of depression and anxiety among teenagers.
A thematic analysis of the effect of social media established that these platforms adversely affect teenagers on adolescents’ mental health. O’Reilly et al. (2018) undertook a study to establish the effect of social media on mental well-being by exploring adolescents’ perspectives. The researchers used a qualitative design for the exploratory character of the study. The study’s participants noted that they felt social media was a risk to their mental well-being by leading to increased cases of stress, low self-esteem, suicidal ideation, and depression, and by also exposing individuals to bullying and trolling (O’Reilly et al., 2018). Therefore, it is important to regulate social media to protect adolescents from its adverse effects on their mental health.
Studies on the effects of social networking platforms on teenagers’ mental health give inconsistent reasons for the association. While both Primack et al. (2017) opine that social media has an indirect effect on adolescents’ mental health. According to Primack et al. (2017), using too many social networking platforms leads to excess multitasking between the platforms leading to poor cognitive and mental health problems. Since each social media application has its own set of unwritten rules and idiosyncrasies, individuals can experience a challenge in comfortably navigating different applications. Primack et al. (2017) also note that some depressed persons may seek social media platforms for support, only to become overwhelmed by the increased interactions while still experiencing the void, leading to increased feelings of stress. However, O’Reilly et al. (2018) assert that social media directly affects individuals’ mental health by exposing people to cyberbullying; leading to social media addiction; and causing depression and suicidal thoughts. There is a need to conduct further research to establish the relationship between social media and teenagers’ mental health.
Social Media on Teenagers Relationships and Identity
Excessive use of social media can have a damaging effect on one’s self-identity. Research by Weinstein (2018) established that social media affects teenagers’ self-identity. The research collected data from 588 teens in the United States using the survey method (Weinstein, 2018). The research revealed that social media could be overwhelming for teenagers, mainly when they are chatting with many respondents at the same time. Almost all the interviewees felt left out when they missed out on a post shared by one of their friends, leading them to imagine whether the post aimed at hurting them or if they are overly sensitive (Weinstein, 2018). Browsing through social media can also arouse individuals’ insecurities, affecting their perception of their identity. Weinstein (2018) noted that browsing through social media pages arouses envy or admiration, highlighting individuals’ insecurities, desires, and circumstances. Since social media can arouse excess feelings of envy and admiration when an adolescent observes friends living a better life than what they are experiencing, it can negatively impact their self-identity.
Unregulated social media use can negatively affect teenagers’ perception of themselves. A study by Burnette, Kwitowski, and Mezzo (2017), involving 38 girls from grade 7 and grade 8 from a private school in Virginia, established that uncontrolled use of social media could adversely affect teenagers’ self-identity. Actions on social media, such as posting selfies, chats, comments, likes, and filtering of images, can affect teenagers’ view of themselves. The research’s respondents affirmed that they were aware of the artificiality of media images posted on social media. Also, some made conscious efforts to avoid content that can invoke appearance comparisons or image concerns. Brunette, Kwitowski, and Mezzo (2017) noted that the respondents were critical of “fat talk,” which is a thinly veiled way of seeking validation. The girls in the study expressed the value of accepting compliments without seeking validation through social media. Brunette et al. (2017) opined that the respondent’s view of dialogue was a form of protective filtering meant to preserve their body esteem. While Brunette, Kwitowski, and Mezzo (2017) established that parental guidance and school environment were instrumental in shaping the respondents’ view of social media, the research demonstrated that social media increases adolescents’ risk of accessing information that can damage body esteem.
The research findings differ in their view regarding teenagers’ ability to manage or avoid content that can damage their mood. Weinstein (2018) notes that social media arouses teenagers’ insecurities, leading to their negative view of their identity. However, Brunette, Kwitowski, and Mezzo (2017) opine that teenagers’ knowledge of the artificiality of images in social media plays a major role in their self-esteem and not social media itself. Therefore, teenagers’ awareness of various image-filtering tools can allow them to appreciate posts on social networks without getting insecurities. Besides, adolescents can avoid content that can invoke appearance comparison.
Social Media and Sexual Risk among Teenagers
Increased use of social media is linked with increased sexual risk among teenagers. Romo et al. (2017) undertook a study to establish the association between sexual risk and social media use among primarily Hispanic adolescents. The primary participants for the study were Hispanic adolescents between the ages of 13-21 years in Northern Manhattan, New York. The researchers used regression analysis and Chi-square tests controlling for age and gender to assess the relationship between social media use or sexting and sexual behaviors (touching genitals, vaginal oral, anal sex, and kissing, and sexual risks, history of sexually transmitted infection, and contraceptive use. Romo et al. (2017) established that frequent participants in social media had greater odds of sexual activity compared to those that rarely used social media. In particular, sexters had significantly higher chances of penetrative sex and the use of hormonal contraceptives. Adolescents that experienced privacy discussions had a greater likelihood of owning private profiles and lower chances of sexting. Therefore, social media use correlates to a greater increase in sexual behaviors, while measures on restraining social media use led to lower sexual risk.
Research by Landry et al. (2017) also showed a positive relationship between social media use and sexual behavior. The study was done using a sample of 555 Latino youth between 13-19 years from Maryland, USA. The research used a mixed-effect linear regression to find the relationship between social media and change in sexual risk with time and the effects of parental monitoring in moderating the risk. Landry et al. (2017) established that social media use significantly increased sexual risk behavior, with significantly high sexual risk scores for youths that send more than 100 social media messages daily (beta=1.008, P<.001). Higher parental monitoring was found to significantly reduce sexual risk scores (beta=1.008, P<.001). Accordingly, reduced use of social media and increased parental monitoring can help in reducing sexual risk among adolescents.
The main difference in the research was on the location where the study occurred and key variables. Romo et al.’s (2017) study was undertaken in Northern Manhattan, New York, while Laundry et al.’s (2017) research was done in Maryland, USA. While both researchers observed that high communication in social media among teenagers is associated with increased sexual risk, Romo et al. (2017) noted that those involved in sexting were at their greatest risk, and Laundry et al. (2017) asserted that those that send more than 100 messages a day are more likely to engage in sexual behavior. Noteworthy, the high levels of activity in social media by sexters can increase their likelihood of sending more than 100 messages daily, leading to similar findings in Laundry et al. (2017) and Romo et al. (2017) studies. In this regard, reducing adolescents’ use of social media and increased parental monitoring can reduce their risk of engaging in sex, leading to unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases.
Overall, excessive and unmonitored exposure to social media can have detrimental effects on the well-being of teenagers. Unregulated use of social networking platforms can affect adolescents’ mental health by triggering depression and anxiety. Also, too much social media can adversely affect teenagers’ relationships and identity by leading to isolation and arousing envy or admiration, affecting one’s feelings of self-worth. Besides, the level of use of social communication platforms correlates to adolescents’ sexual risks. While social media has various benefits to teenagers, such as allowing them to interact with distant friends, parents should be proactive in limiting and guiding adolescents on social media to ensure they use it responsibly.
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