A CONSTANT STRESS
According to Statista, this year, more than 81 percent of Americans have a social media profile. Redwood Wellness Coordinator Jen Kenny-Baum explains that social media usage causes a level of pervasive stress that continues to damage teenagers’ mental health over time.
“Social media and the pressures that come with it are just so constant that I don’t even know how many people acknowledge what it’s either giving to them or taking from them,” Kenny-Baum said.
Although not all students pinpoint social media as the cause of their anxiety, the tendency to compare oneself to people and images on social media is the root of several mental health problems. According to the same Bark survey, 84 percent of students reported that they have experienced a negative reaction from seeing a social media post, including feelings of social isolation and insecurities relating to body image and financial status.
This issue is not something that only Redwood teenagers face. A 2014 study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh found that people who visit social media over 58 times a week are three times likelier to feel lonely than those who only visit the sites under nine times a week.
Social media is a platform that allows people to share glimpses of their lives with their friends, but negative consequences often result from the comparisons that users draw between themselves and others.
According to psychology teacher Jonathan Hirsch, teenagers often assume that what they see on their phone is the whole story, not recognizing that there is more to what they see than is shared. The tendency to make such generalizations is a biological mechanism that allows humans to conserve energy rather than spending it worrying about unnecessary, superficial subjects, according to Hirsch.
“When it comes to social media and paying attention to gossip, you hear all these things happening, and you fill in all the gaps about all these things that you think other people are doing,” Hirsch said. “You compare it to what you know you are experiencing and you think ‘Wow, my life isn’t like that all the time.’”
Hirsch believes that if people were to consciously avoid taking what they hear or see at face value and actually consider their peers’ lives, they would realize that what is portrayed on social media is very different from what exists behind the screen.
“Practicing that internal monologue leads to a decrease in our happiness because we are relative and we are naturally comparing ourselves to other people,” Hirsch said.
The “highlight reel” phenomenon, a common trend across many platforms in which users showcase their best moments, perpetuates the notion that everyone else’s life is better, which creates negative thoughts that have a damaging effect on mental health, according to a story by The Atlantic.
Infographic by Melissa Block
THE “PERFECT” BODY
Whether it’s sultry Instagram model accounts on the “Explore” page of the app or filtered selfies littering Snapchat stories, teenagers are bombarded with images of “perfect bodies,” ingraining the idea that there is only one way to look beautiful. Though men can feel insecure about their body image too, females in particular feel the effects of these stereotypes, which are widespread through social media. According to Psychology Today, women are more dissatisfied with their bodies than men and are likelier to consider themselves “too fat.”
Though the images posted to Instagram might be airbrushed to perfection, they still send the message that to be pretty or desirable, all girls must look the same way, with cascading hair, tan skin and toned abs that still complement sexy curves.
Anglin deleted Instagram after developing body image issues from seeing such photos on her social media account every day.
“Looking at social media models, they’ve always had the skinniest waist and the biggest butt, so I always looked at myself wishing I had more of a slim waist and that I was more muscular, or kind of just that I had that body type,” Anglin said. “I’m trying to go more self-love, but it’s sometimes hard, looking around at everyone else.”
However, the “perfect” body is less universal than social media would have one believe. The National Eating Disorder Association reported that 20 years ago, the average fashion model weighed eight percent less than the average woman, whereas today, the average fashion model weighs 23 percent less than the average woman. Too often, women feel a need to lose more weight because of the influence that media has on them.
This idealization of beauty can often result in eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. It is estimated that roughly eight million Americans have an eating disorder. There are several factors that contribute to eating disorders, social media being one of them, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.
“If we are constantly exposed to pictures of people who are statistically and psychologically outliers—your stereotypical model—if you did a study of the percentage of the female population that actually represented that, you're talking about the far right side,” Hirsch said. “And if that’s the majority of the images that we pay attention to, then that’s how we define socially normal and socially acceptable. And intellectually when we stop and have that internal monologue, that helps. But that's hard to do and takes a lot of effort.”
Hirsch stressed that lack of awareness about the workings of the brain and its emotions makes us more prone to comparing ourselves to unrealistic ideals.
“In those moments of weakness, in those moments of fatigue that we all experience, when our frontal lobes are taxed, when we are stressed out, when we are unsure, that’s when that unconscious mind comes bubbling to the surface and tells you, ‘You don't match up,’” Hirsch said.
There was a time when Anglin felt validated by the number of likes she got on the photos she used to post on Instagram and held herself to impossibly high standards she witnessed in other users.
“I always had to get 250 likes or else my photo would be deleted because I didn’t think it was good enough,” Anglin said. “Looking at other people’s Instagrams, I just felt really insecure. Even though I knew everyone really edited their photos, I looked at the photo and thought ‘Oh, I should look like this too.’”
Senior Natasha Arnowitz, president of the Body Positive club, doesn’t have any social media accounts because she believes that they generate a cycle of negativity within one’s head.
“It’s so fake and the filters add on to that in a physical way. I just think showing all these fake images can generate these sad thoughts in people’s heads. A solution would be trying to post photos with no filters, with no makeup, so it looks real and relatable,” Arnowitz said.
However, she understands the popularity of having social media accounts and can see some positive aspects.
“[Body Positive] is also trying to pick out the good in social media. Ashley Graham, a famous model, is super body positive and into embracing her curves. So, finding people like that is super helpful if you want to still be part of social media,” Arnowitz said.
IS IT JUST TEENAGERS?
Hirsch said that though this tendency of comparison is human, teenagers are more prone to engage in it, with more harmful results. Georgia Health Sciences University states that because the teenage brain has not finished developing, it forms long lasting habits much quicker.
According to Hirsch, because teenagers are more invested in the worlds of Instagram and Snapchat, what plays out on those platforms carries a heavier weight than it would for adults. Teenagers have also grown up in a time where running social media accounts and spending copious amounts of time on our phones is ubiquitous, causing the effects of comparison to be more severe in our generation.
“Because you are more attuned to the world around you, you are more attuned to the influences of other people around you,” Hirsch said.
Additionally, the setup of some social media apps allows users to ‘friend’ people with whom they might not have a solid connection, which only serves to enlarge the amount of people from whom comparisons can be drawn.
“It’s the loosely connected people, the people that you’re friends with on Snapchat or that you follow on Instagram, it’s the people who you don't hangout with everyday but you see on social media. Those are the people who it's dangerous to compare yourself to,” Hirsch said.
These more distant “friends” embody a “closure effect” according to Hirsch. He said that because the relationship is superficial and the details of their lives aren’t known, what they post on social media appears to encompass their seemingly perfect lives when that isn’t the case.
FEAR OF MISSING OUT
Casually referred to as FOMO, the fear of missing out is a type of social anxiety that is further triggered by social media, according to Barbara Kahn, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
In an episode of The Hidden Brain, an NPR podcast that discusses human behavior, Kahn describes why people experience FOMO.
“It's really more about what your friends are doing in building up their social group history that you're missing out on,” Kahn said on the podcast.
Though this type of social anxiety didn’t originate from the birth of social media, the ability to receive instant updates of what your peers are doing aggravates the fear of missing out.
“When you see it on your phone, and you're just observing that your friends are doing something and you're not there, that's something you didn't get to see before,” Kahn said, which connects to Anglin’s experience of seeing her friends at a party without her.
The fear of missing out can go a step further in the form of feeling socially isolated. According to studies conducted by Dr. Matthew Pantell from the Pediatrics Department at UCSF, feelings of social isolation can cause serious mental and physical health effects.
“The more isolated teenagers are, the more likely they are to have depressive symptoms and poorer health outcomes,” Pantell said.
Infographic by Saamya Mungamuru
According to Pantell, social isolation is defined as the opposite of feeling social support and social connections. When people don’t feel like they have strong social connections, Pantell’s research found that it can result in anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies as well as poorer heart and general health, headaches and stomach aches and trouble sleeping.
According to the Bark survey, 60 percent of students self-reported that they have experienced FOMO from viewing a social media post and 43 percent have felt socially isolated.
Pew Research Center found that more than 56 percent of teens aged 13 to 17 go online several times a day, while only six percent of teens report going online weekly, showing the large dependency teenagers have to their phones.
After realizing that his dependency on social media was distracting him from his academics and weakening his friendships, Freshman Ethan Garsten decided to limit his phone usage.
“I used to be on my phone a lot when hanging out with friends but I tried to change my habits of being antisocial and [started] staying engaged with my friends,” Garsten said.
Though he did not delete his social media accounts, Garsten noticed that simply controlling the amount of time he spent on the apps has already resulted in him achieving higher grades and strengthening his relationships with his friends because the phone was no longer a constant distraction.
However, Garsten notes that social media is not all bad. Snapchat and Instagram can be outlets for self-expression where students can share art and photography as well as stay in touch with more people, Garsten said.
“I can see how people can argue that social media is a place to meet new people, and express yourself, like if you want to post pictures on Instagram or talk to your friends on Snapchat,” Garsten said. “In a sense, you can share the experiences in your life, your adventures in life.”
But for Garsten, the positives of social media do not outweigh the negatives. With the decrease in his usage, he has noticed a considerable increase in his happiness. And to Hirsch, this isn’t a surprise.
“When it comes to happiness, one of the things that we do know increases our happiness is experiences with friends. Having meaningful, memorable experiences with friends,” Hirsch said. “Because when those things are fun, nobody can ever take that away from us. We can always draw on our happy memories, so it makes sense that we want to seek that out.”