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Social media is detrimental to mental health (Op-Ed)

It’s no secret that we live in an increasingly digital world that is dominated by virtual services and platforms, online communities, and mobile devices. Modern technology has permeated every aspect of modern society, creating an increasingly obvious dependence on our devices and their functions in our day-to-day lives. 

Through these advances in technology, we have fully embraced a new era of person-to-person interaction and communication; social media. Literally, digital media that is meant for social interactions between individuals using online accounts and profiles. 

As someone who falls within Generation Z, I’ve been a first-hand witness to the rise, prime, and in some cases, decline of some of the most popular and highly-used social media applications today. While millennials saw the true inception of this concept through MySpace, AOL, or the early days of Facebook through home and personal computers, social media truly skyrocketed and transformed into what it is today through the vehicle of mobile devices; cell phones, to be exact. 

Take Instagram, for example. Launched in 2010, the app was instantaneously popular with over 1 million users registered in just two months, according to Investopedia. In the following years, millions more joined and contributed to the simplistic, yet fun interface, uploading photos of everything and anything from their everyday lives and basking in the ability to show creativity and vulnerability online through their own personal gallery. 

Snapchat, released in 2011, followed closely behind and emulated a similar, but notably different experience through what is arguably the birth of modern short-form content. By only allowing users to post content that fell within a 10-second time frame, deleting content after 24 hours unless otherwise saved, and deleting messages instantly unless otherwise saved, Snapchat shook the foundations of social media and completely changed the game, allowing users to post without regard for future consequences, all tied together with filters ranging from flattering, to funny, to frightening in nature. 

Other flash-in-the-pan apps also made their appearances in the mid-2010’s, including Vine and Musical.ly, apps that eventually either morphed into others or were discontinued, yet still had massive cultural impact. Vine, especially, became immensely popular for its six-second timeframe, allowing users to create jokes, mini-sketches, and comedy routines in addition to recording the outrageous, unusual, and interesting mini-moments of their lives. Due to the scrollable interface and massive amount of content available to view, users were susceptible to endless loops of scrolling without regard for the time used and arguably wasted on the app. 

Vine met its end in 2016, much to the dismay of those who were avid lurkers as well as content creators who transitioned to YouTube or other online communities to continue their presence. 

In 2018, Musical.ly and TikTok, a budding short-form video sharing platform, merged together, retaining the accounts and data available through Musical.ly. Although slow to start, TikTok gradually became one of, if not the most popular social media platform available, deeming sites such as Facebook and Snapchat irrelevant or tired. Pairing the well-adjusted short-form content strategy with popular music, wildfire trends and advertising deals, it’s dominated online user bases generationally from Generation Alpha all the way to Millennials and Generation X. 

With all of that context and history out of the way, the real question is why all of this matters, and how and why these platforms are creating a negative, detrimental influence on the mental health of the user bases they serve. 

While social media platforms initially emerged to provide an entertaining and accessible digital space for people to connect, they’ve gradually changed and incorporated more superficial, staged, and unattainable practices into their algorithms and interfaces. Users are constantly exposed to a seemingly never-ending stream of content of individuals who look better, eat better, travel better, have more friends and financial security, better jobs- you name it. 

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that social media tends to be a representation of one’s life that is carefully curated and cherry-picked to display the best of the best- however, with the adaptation of the “influencer”, we’re seeing massive upticks in accounts and platforms that focus on the classic humble brag, or “an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud.” 

People who are attempting to come across as relatable, down-to-earth, or portraying a slice of life are not genuine in their acts- the fact that they can support themselves off of their online personas and presence, often as their only source of income, is already a major discrepancy from the audience that they’re targeting with their content. 

Young individuals who have not fully formed their own identity and are incredibly vulnerable to peer pressure, insecurity, depression, and anxiety are the main target demographic of these apps. Unlimited exposure to accounts showing off a life that is simply unattainable for that person, enriched with not-so-subtle brand and advertising deals for products they don’t need, can severely damage their sense of self-worth and self-confidence. 

Pressure to look and act a certain way, buy certain products, and adjust their lifestyle is incredibly prevalent, robbing them of the opportunity to organically grow and find their identity naturally. 

Beyond the damage social media can do to one’s self-confidence and mental health, the adverse effects on attention span and communication styles cannot be overlooked. 

While platforms did start with simple interfaces not bogged down by advertisements or special features, there was a distinctive shift in the mid-to-late 2010’s towards short-form content and the integration of ads online, as mentioned previously. Suddenly, Instagram had its own version of “stories”, 24-hour uploads to one’s profile that mimics Snapchat. Online shopping browsers and short-form content platforms were also integrated, ranging from “shorts” on Facebook to “reels” on Instagram to “spotlights” on Snapchat, the platform where it all started. This was only intensified by TikTok in the late 2010’s and early 2020’s, a.k.a., modern day.

With this shift, we’ve seen a noticeable and concerning effect on the attention spans, priorities, and communication styles of Generation Z and Generation Alpha. Due to the bombardment of short-form content that hits the dopamine receptors again and again, we’re much more susceptible to scrolling for far too long, looking for that next “hit”. While phone and social media addictions do not have the same medical definition as a substance-use addiction, many of the same psychological, and in some cases, physiological effects can occur, manifesting through our bodies pressuring us to get that next fix of instant gratification. 

Social media platforms have capitalized on this, designing their algorithms to be entirely too personalized, analyzing data down to the millisecond of whether a user swipes away instantaneously, stays for a few seconds, watches an entire video, or, the holy grail, provides a desperately sought-out like, comment, or share. 

From this information, increasingly relatable content is pushed, oftentimes to the point of creepiness, seemingly peering into our very minds on what products and services we’re interested in, or the exact type of dog videos we laugh at the most. 

Through extended time on our cell phones, younger generations are also experiencing delays and struggles with their interpersonal communication skills and overall social skills. The inability to focus on more than one thing for more than a few seconds or minutes without getting bored, compounded by suffering conversational skills, soft skills, writing, and reading ability are all present in current public schools. Increased reliance on visual content and physical technology has also changed the way we learn and move throughout the world, arguably for the worse. 

All in all, it’s clear that the current state of social media and digital technology is on a rollercoaster only going up. It’s essentially impossible to reverse or undo what’s been done at this point in what we’ll accept for our children and teenagers, but it is still in our power to redefine the future, take back control of our devices and use technology responsibly moving forward. 

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