Social media platforms play a huge role in the lives of teenagers today. Many of today’s teens spend most of their time scrolling on Facebook or Twitter and dancing to Tiktok videos. While these seem pretty harmless, being online 24/7 isn’t good at all. It has raised some questions on the impacts it has on teens, particularly on their mental health and social growth.
A 2018 report surveyed teenagers from ages 13-17 and tracked social media’s evolution back from 2012 to 2018. The findings showed that 89% of teens have their own smartphones - higher compared to 2012 with only 42%. More than half of the respondents stated that social media not only distracts them from fully paying attention to the people they’re with in the moment but also takes them away from personal relationships.
Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist, said that girls have more social and emotional difficulties as they age compared to boys. “Girls are socialized more to compare themselves to other people, girls, in particular, to develop their identities, so it makes them more vulnerable to the downside of all this,” she said.
However, social media can also be a dark place for teens. A 2018 survey conducted by Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world, found out that 59% of US teens have personally experienced at least one of six types of abusive online behaviors. The most common form of harassment that teens experience is offensive name-calling (42%), followed by spreading of false rumors (32%), receiving explicit images they didn’t ask for (25%), constantly asking where they are, who they’re with or what they’re doing (21%), and being targeted with physical threats (16%).
Multiple studies have shown consistent associations between exposure to cyberbullying and increased likelihood of depression. While there has been progress in addressing cyberbullying and helping teens to come forward, there’s no assurance of how we will be able to stop this. Unfortunately, amid a public health crisis, cyberbullying cases might increase, harming more and more teens.
Cyberbullying and Coronavirus
With the increasing coronavirus cases across the world, governments imposed preventive measures to contain the virus. This includes encouraging people to stay home, closing down schools and businesses, and many more. This allows people, especially teens, to use social media even more than they already do. It’s understandable how screentime is going way up as teens are forced to use online platforms for learning. However, this has given them more time to be hurtful towards other people.
Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice within FAU's College for Design and Social Inquiry, stated that hostility toward others tends to escalate along with self-preserving and self-defensive behaviors during a pandemic. Many teens are missing out on some of the biggest moments of their young lives. They are even prohibited from doing their daily routine such as participating in class and socializing with their friends. As a result, they tend to focus on other things to occupy their boredom.
"When smartphones and social media became ubiquitous for students, cyberbullying rates went up. This makes sense, of course, because there was now an almost limitless number of potential targets and aggressors," Hinduja said.
According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, Hinduja added that xenophobic/racist cyberbullying may also increase during this crisis. Many people have been actively associating COVID-19 with the Asian community because the virus started in Wuhan, China. Racist comments and attacks are being reported in many parts of the world, harming and discriminating against Asian people.
“Some continue to call COVID-19 a 'foreign virus' and parents have complained that their children are being accused as carriers just because they are Asian. I'm Asian and have dealt with my share of bullying based on race/ethnicity, and so I am particularly sensitive to this issue and simply do not want to see it spiral out of control,” she said.
Unfortunately, teens hesitate to open up to their family or friends. This would leave them suffering silently, harming their mental health more. Cyberbullying and isolation can trigger their anxiety on top of their fear of the virus.
How Teens Can Take Care of Themselves
Teens should learn how to take care of their mental health during this crisis. Dr. Lisa Damour, an expert adolescent psychologist and best-selling author, said that it would be helpful to create distractions to keep them occupied. For instance, they can watch a movie, read a book, or find other hobbies that they will enjoy. “What psychologists know is that when we are under chronically difficult conditions, it’s very helpful to divide the problem into two categories: things I can do something about, and then things I can do nothing about,” she said.
While missing out on your everyday life is upsetting and disappointing, Dr. Damour said that it’s okay for teens to feel that way and go through the pain. It’s okay to be sad because you will eventually start to feel better. Teens can also look for platforms or outlets to express their feelings comfortably. “Some kids are going to make art, some kids are going to want to talk to their friends and use their shared sadness as a way to feel connected in a time when they can’t be together in person, and some kids are going to want to find ways to get food to food banks,” she added.
According to an article by UNICEF, a UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide, teens should also learn that being anxious is completely normal. This would help them make decisions, alert them to threats, and help them take measures to protect themselves. “Those feelings are helping to keep not only you safe but others too. This is also how we take care of members of our community. We think about the people around us, too,” Dr. Damour added.
Additionally, Hinduja stated that educators can help prevent cyberbullying among teens during this crisis. For instance, it would be helpful to set expectations and standards immediately and clearly for respectful behavior among their students; reinforce positive peer interactions in all venues; keep in touch with all of their students on a regular basis; keep in touch with those they know who need a deeper connection, and remind them that they are there for them if they need help, support or advice.