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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Area students reflect on social media’s effect. Hint: Their reviews are positive and negative

As teens spend more and more time online, local school district aim to hamper its negative effects.  (Cottonbro Studio)
By Liam Bradford and Samantha Fuller The Spokesman-Review

The significant time many teens spend online can play a substantial role in their lives. With the new school year starting, some limitations may need to be set to ensure students maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“Social media can take away from your social life because it’s all digital,” said incoming Mt. Spokane High School senior Eric Agius. “If I’ve already been texting someone, I feel like I don’t need to talk to them in person because I’ve already got my fix. I’ve felt like I’ve been a little underdeveloped with social cues. Social media definitely affected my social abilities.”

In June, Spokane Public Schools filed a complaint along with many other school districts in a class-action civil lawsuit against TikTok, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. The aim, the district said, is not to shut down the companies, but “to change how these companies operate and force them to take responsibility. We are asking these popular companies to maximize their efforts to safeguard students, who are their most vulnerable consumers.”

It had been, in the district’s view, a long time coming.

“Although we are entering this lawsuit towards the end of the school year, we have been working to inform SPS families and staff about the negative impacts of social media since the beginning of the school year,” said Sandra Jarrard, executive director of communications and government affairs at Spokane Public Schools.

The district hosted a webinar to educate parents on social media safety precautions in October 2022. To create a more comfortable environment for their students, the school district created a digital avenue called “Let’s Talk!” where students can report online or in-person bullying or request help in other ways.

In previous years, Agius said he had negative experiences with social media, leading him to attend therapy sessions for several years. He began using social media when he was 12. He now believes 16 is a reasonable age to begin using social media platforms. He currently uses Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Discord.

Agius began running cross-country and became a sports photographer after his issues with social media. He says finding a hobby was the key to moving forward and “recouping my losses.”

“The mental health and well-being of the global population can be at a great risk through the uncontrolled massive use of social media,” according to the National Library of Medicine. “These researchers also showed that social media sources can exert negative affective impacts on teenagers, as they can induce more envy and social comparison.”

There are countless ways social media can affect a young person. According to an article published by Columbia University, the average age for a child to open a social media account is 12½ years old.

Regarding the side effects of social media, David Crump, Spokane Public Schools’ director of behavioral health services, acknowledges that social media can create distractions.

“It takes away from school time,” Crump said. “There have been links between high use of social media and anxiety or depressive symptoms. It takes away from face-to-face interpersonal interaction time.

“Another potential harm is anything you put on there becomes public. It also does give an unrealistic view of other people’s lives. It gives a kind of false impression. It’s like, ‘Wow, look how happy everybody else is, and they have a better life than me.’ Another potential challenge is exposure to rumors and peer pressure.”

Parker Hayes graduated from Clarkston High School in 2022 and has a significant variety of social media accounts, but doesn’t let it affect him negatively. He says social media makes most people lazy.

Hayes says 15 would be a reasonable age to start using social media, but since he started at 13, his mind has been programmed to overuse social media during crucial development years. Hayes says he doesn’t want his kids using social media when they could be outside.

Crump’s department offers mental health and substance use counseling to over 1,000 students throughout Spokane County. He notes that most students he works with spend 3 to 7 hours daily on social media. Despite acknowledging issues with social media, Crump believes it is unrealistic for someone to avoid social media altogether.

“I think saying don’t be on social media is unrealistic nowadays. I think it’s naive,” he said. “Set reasonable limits. Monitoring is really effective. Sometimes you have to just overtly teach that there is right and wrong. A lot of times with our youth, we have to be able to give them permission to say ‘No, that’s not right.’ ”

Due to a combination of increased social media use and a pandemic, many young people’s social development has been delayed in recent years.

According to a survey conducted by CTRL Care Behavioral Health, 90% of surveyed teens use social media. Problems that can occur with social media include cyberbullying, violent and sexual content, unrealistic standards, peer pressure, social anxiety, damaged self-esteem and sleep disruption.

The director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, Dr. Anne Marie Albano, explained in the Columbia University article how sleep deprivation can become an issue due to social media.

“We know that using screens directly impacts your ability to get good quality of sleep. The bottom line is technology keeps you awake,” she said. “The artificial light arouses your brain and disrupts the production of melatonin to induce sleep. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation is linked to increased anxiety, stress, depression and also substance abuse.”

Aside from potential sleep deprivation, it is no secret that social media can damage one’s confidence or self-image.

“Any kid who is prone to concerns about their self-image and who they are, who is anxious about fitting in or what other people think about them, will inevitably compare themselves to the number of likes, friends, or followers other people have when they go online,” Albano said. “They are looking at these sites through a negative lens of, ‘I’m never going to be as good as these people.’ That mindset puts them at risk of increasing depression and isolation, and these are all factors that can contribute to feelings of suicide, especially when bullying gets added to the mix.”

Young girls, specifically, are prone to damage from social media. Jacqueline Nesi, co-author and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown, noticed that girls with active social media often exhibit depression, according to an article in the Washington Post. About three-quarters of girls on Instagram that presented signs of depression viewed “suicide-related content at least monthly.” TikTok was 69%, while Snapchat and YouTube were 64%.

In a study conducted and written about in the Washington Post, “about 1 in 4 who use TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat experience negative social comparisons and feel pressure daily to show the best versions of themselves.”

The study also presented that almost 4 in 10 girls surveyed tried to quit due to mental health problems. It was also found that young females in the LQBTQ community receive twice the hate mail online due to sexual or gender identity.

Not all social media users view it as a negative space. For 16-year-old Danica Dart, she differs between wanting a break from social media and using it as a primary form of communication. Dart began using social media around 12 or 13 and is currently active on Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat. She uses social media to reach out to sponsors in her career as a racecar driver.

“It depends if you’re using it for a good reason or a bad reason. Since I do races and influencing and stuff, I’m on it quite more than a lot of other people, so often I’m on my phone,” said Dart, of Ephrata High School.

Her high use of social media doesn’t mean she can’t recognize the potential dangers of the online world.

“I think it could take away from relationships if it creates a non-trustworthy type of situation because people can be talking to other people while in a relationship, and it can also keep you from going out of the house,” Dart added.

Mark Sherwood, assistant principal of North Central High School, agrees social media can be good and bad for students.

“We’ve seen some kind of increase in camaraderie and things like that. We see a lot of conflicts arise. It’s a lot easier for students to say negative things to each other from behind the phone,” he said.

At North Central, each teacher has rules for cell phone use in the classroom. Multiple teachers have found ways to use phones to get students to engage more often.

While Crump understands better than anyone the impact social media can have on a teenager, he believes social media can be beneficial if used correctly.

“Let me kind of talk about potential benefits of social media,” Crump said. “I think it helps create online identities. I think it also provides social networks that can be supportive and inclusive. It’s an avenue for creativity, entertainment and self-expression.”

Jake Caldwell graduated from Clarkston High School in 2022. He uses all the main social media platforms. He says he is not obsessed with these platforms but uses them to interact with friends and likes to keep up with what everyone else is doing. He tries to spend under three hours per day on his phone because he doesn’t want to become susceptible to trust issues that social media causes.

Overall, some elements within the modern social media environment should be adjusted.

“You can get really bullied a lot, I know that, and there’s a lot of creepy people, so you have to just be smart,” Dart said. “I’ve seen people post bad videos or stuff they regret, and it just sticks with them, I’m sure, for their whole life, or it makes it so they don’t have opportunities in life.

“I think you’re just a lot more vulnerable if you’re on social media.”

Liam Bradford and Samantha Fuller's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.