Have you been in a classroom, restaurant or airport lately? Have you noticed how everyone’s faces are robotically glued to their glowing screens?
Media conglomerates—Meta, X, Google, Snapchat, TikTok—have created a world for our youth where online connection is ground zero.
Social media technology has revolutionized not only the way tweens and teens communicate, but the way they live, play, and think. No doubt about it. The youth of today are navigating globe-encircling technologies totally unlike anything their parents faced.
And since members of Gen Z are the biggest consumers of social media, the question we pose here is paramount. Has social media consumed our children and adolescents?
To find an answer, we need to examine the data on social media use by U.S. tweens and teens, ages 9-17 (Part One); expose and evaluate the consequences following from the data (Part Two) and, in an urgent effort to protect our kids, call for a collective activism to right the social media ship (Part Three).
Part One: The Data
Here’s what’s driving the growing concerns over American tween and teen social media use. Extrapolate data from the surveys below. Apply them to the 25.4 million teens in America between the ages of 12 and 17. Then to the 24.4 million American tweens between 6 and 11, and you begin to see the demographic magnitude of the problem.
The 2022 Pew Research Studyi (Teens, Social Media and Technology) surveyed 6,316 teen participants across America, plus their parents, with the following results:
- 25% of teens on Snapchat or TikTok said they used these apps almost constantly; a fifth of YouTube users said the same.
- A majority of the teens who used one of the social media platforms “almost constantly” said it would be hard to give up social media, with 32% saying it would be very hard.
- 60% of surveyed teens felt like they had little (40%) or no control (20%) over the personal information the social media companies collected about them.
- 50% of the teens agreed that pressing charges or permanently banning users who bully or harass others on social media would significantly reduce both problems on these platforms.
- 46% of the parents were more likely to be extremely or very concerned about their child’s exposure to explicit content on social media.
The Teens and Tech Survey (2022)ii interviewed 1,600 U.S. tweens and teens, ages 11-18, and found:
- 100% of participants used all forms of digital media a whopping total of 10 hours and 4 minutes per day.
- 50% of those in intact families reported they participated in family activities, compared with 43% of teens in single parent families and 36% of teens in stepfamilies. Youth who spent more time on digital media and less time with family activities were more likely to report symptoms of mental health problems.
- Teens in non-intact families who were heavy tech users were most at risk for depression and/or loneliness.
- Parents in all types of families reported difficulties in trying to regulate their child’s online use, particularly on social media.
- By high school, nearly 8 out of 10 participants whose parents explicitly told them they could not have a social media account reported spending some time on social media.
The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory (2023)iii reports:
- 95% of teens and 40% of children (aged 8-12) used social media.
- Though social media may provide benefits to some youth, it exposed tweens/teens “to extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content.” Youth who spent on average 3.5 hours a day on social media faced “double the risk of poor mental health including . . . symptoms of depression and anxiety.”
- 30% of adolescent social media users were up until midnight or later on their phone and, consequently, experienced poor sleep quality, reduced sleep duration, sleep difficulties, and depression.
Part Two: The Consequences
Tristan Harris, former design ethicist for Google and current executive director for the Center for Humane Technology, offers some timely advice. Rather than trying to forecast the ‘point of singularity’ when AI technology will be smarter and stronger than us humans, we ought to be laser-focused on the social media line we’ve already crossed. A line that pits young users’ psychology against them; a line that’s crippling and even killing our youth.iv
Using social media exploits and manipulates tween/teen users.
In October of 2021, Mark Zuckerberg changed Facebook, Inc. to Meta, short for Metaverse, a virtual reality space where the young can interact with other users and an artificial intelligence-generated environment. The documentary, The Social Dilemma, details how this platform manipulates young users’ emotions, making them happier or sadder, more content or more miserable, without tweens/teens even knowing it.v What’s more, AI-generated social media trains and conditions Gen-Z users to access this digital pacifier every time they’re uncomfortable or lonely, uncertain or afraid. But that habit only serves to vulcanize their own ability to calm and soothe themselves with real-world reflection, activities, and relationships.vi vii
Antonio Garcia Martinez, author of Chaos Monkeys, accuses Facebook (Meta) of bold-facedly lying about its ability to manipulate and exploit users based on the data it collects on them.viii The reality is, every social media platform carefully monitors users’ bodies, homes and every action they do.ix It knows each of their personalities and moods—when they’re depressed and when they’re elated. By tracking every click, AI-generated algorithms “learn” what posts, articles, videos, and ads these tweens and teens will most likely favor. Over time, the algorithms get better and better at predicting what the young user will do, look up, look at, or purchase, building an ever more accurate model—or avatar—of the tween/teen.
In this AI-generated metaverse, anytime two young people connect, a third person advertiser is being paid to manipulate the two of them. Even though the social media app is free, the tween/teen user is the product. More specifically, each youth’s attention is the product being sold to the advertisers.
Using social media indoctrinates tween/teen users.
One tech expert suggests that young social media users who have different views about issues—climate change, for example—do a reality swap.x Teen 1 and Teen 2 open up Facebook on their phones and search for climate change. Then the two swap phones. When teen 1 scrolls through teen 2’s feed, and compares it with his feed, he realizes he’s not seeing what the other teen sees, and vice versa.
This is a visceral way for teens to experience how social media propaganda indoctrinates and balkanizes their users. First, access to sites like Facebook, Snapchat, and TikTok consigns each tween and teen to their own self-reinforcing info-cubicle, dividing one user from the next and, second, tragically introduces youth into a morality-free digital ecosystem that “doesn’t erect any barriers against individual desires and, even more, demolishes existing barriers.”
In the U.S., most young people get their entire diet of news from Facebook or Snapchat.xi An MIT study shows disinformation on Twitter (X) spreads six times faster than truth. Think about that. Social media have the potential to transform the way millions of American youth think about their country and important political and moral issues, and decide how they act out their convictions.
As TikTok or Snapchat become magisterial tools of indoctrination, responsible parties must ask an important question. What would this tool be like in the hands of a despot? Would there be any means more efficient at controlling our youth than social media?
Tween/teen use of social media makes them sick.
Ever experience “phubbing”?xii It’s the act of snubbing someone in a social situation by looking at your phone instead of at the friend or family member in your immediate orbit. It’s absolutely injurious to the user’s healthy social skills. And the person being “phubbed” ends up feeling the teen “phubber” neither respects nor cares about them.xiii
Social media teens spend a lot of their online time observing and comparing their lives and bodies with those of their peers. They’re locked into the “compare and despair” syndrome.xiv For many teens, this syndrome spawns an admixture of psycho-social-physical health problems: social isolation, self-absorption, negative body image, body dysmorphia, low self-esteem, eating disorders, eyestrain, poor sleep quality, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, weakened immunity, anxiety, depression, and even cognitive decline.xv xvi
Some social media platforms actually show suicide and self-harm-related content. In the case of some teens who suffer from low self-esteem and depression, this content has, tragically, led to their death.
“Social media platforms are turning the young into bona fide addicts.”xvii
Because social media optimize the potential for connection, they have a proportionate potential for addiction.xviii But social media addiction is much more complicated for tweens and teens than it is for adults. The brain of an adolescent is still developing and frequent use of social media actually rewires that brain to constantly seek immediate gratification.
Behind tween/teen social media addiction are two chemicals produced in the brain: dopamine and oxytocin.xix Scientists have shown that dopamine actually creates want or desire, causing young social media users to seek, to desire, to search. What stimulates dopamine? Precisely the stuff of a social media ecosystem: unpredictability, small bits of info, and a variable reward system. Since social networking supplies almost unlimited social stimuli, young users correlatively receive an unlimited influx of dopamine.xx
The human brain also releases oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle chemical,” when the person feels affection or connection. Studies show that within 10 mins of social media use, the tween/teen experiences a 13% rush of oxytocin, equivalent to the hormonal spike of people on their wedding day! Here’s the rub: Once youth experience all the goodwill effects of oxytocin—lower stress levels, feelings of love, trust, empathy, and generosity—it’s nigh unto impossible to quit wanting more of it.
Social media companies like Meta, hiring the best computer programmers and psychiatric specialists, optimize the science of addiction to keep young social media fans “hooked.”xxi The very reason both the narcotic and social media industries call their customers “users.”xxii
In short, social media algorithms leverage teens’ dopamine/oxytocin-driven reward circuitry and “stack the cards—and [their] brains—against them.”xxiii
Part Three: Some Ideas and Solutions
Resolving the pernicious consequences of social media overuse should galvanize every relevant segment of society into immediate action toward remaking and repairing social media.
U.S. lawmakers at the state level have taken important steps to develop legal protections for young social media users.xxiv But that’s not enough. We need federal legislative protections for youth in all 50 states that all social media platforms understand and follow.
Strong comprehensive federal privacy and data protections are now a real possibility. The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), introduced by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), would place a “duty of care” on social media companies barring them from promoting harmful behaviors (eating disorders and suicide) to networking youth under 17.
The Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), introduced by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA), would raise the age of consent for data collection from 13 to 16 and form a new division of the Federal Trade Commission to enforce it. The bill explicitly covers protection for support services, suicide help hotlines, and educational software.
Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, urges bi-partisan support and passage of both pieces of legislation. “Taken together, KOSA and COPPA will help create the internet all young people deserve—one that respects their privacy and autonomy and allows them to safely learn, play and connect.”xxv
A handful of Silicon Valley tech companies have taken over the public square, controlling roughly 2 billion people. Developing regulatory metrics that will enable both the tech companies and the general public to evaluate and track instances of harm to young social media aficionadas must be the first order of the day.
Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General, maintains the best way social media platforms can reduce negative fallout from their products is to set the health and safety of young users as their number one priority. This requires they share their data with independent researchers to increase the collective understanding of social networking impacts, make design and development decisions that benefit kids’ safety and health, and perfect systems so that the public’s complaints are handled effectively and in a timely fashion.xxvi
Social media companies have an obligation to limit the data they use and protect the data they keep. And, before social media apps hit the digital marketplace, they must meet stringent safety standards just like any other product.
Tech experts narrating The Social Dilemma demand the social media industrial complex redesign their platforms to facilitate a humane design. Others define a benevolent design as one that honors users’ freedom to “run the program as [they] wish” and “to study the program’s source code and change it, so the program does the computing as [they] wish.”xxvii
Most often kids outpace their parents in using and manipulating their smartphones and social media apps. The first thing parents should do, to be conversant with the apps’ good and bad features, is become facile in maneuvering social networking themselves. Only then can they teach their kids and adolescents how to safely navigate the social networking landscape.
In every event, the adults in the room must model responsible online behavior for their children. Here’s how:
- Watch The Social Dilemma with your kids to help them better understand the manipulative and addictive power they carry around in their pockets every day.
- Set up an agreement with your teens designating the time both of you will spend on social networking. Keep tabs on promises kept.
- Agree that both of you will turn off notifications and alerts on your digital devices.
- Agree with your teens to delete accounts that are negatively impacting the health and well-being of both of you.
- Create “tech-free zones” for your whole family: mornings and evenings, perhaps; meal times; bedrooms.
- Agree with your kids to use social media as a way to thank family and friends for their love and support.
- Designate a digital detox date or day (Sunday?) when you and your kids are offline; or take an all-family, tech-free vacation.
- Agree to use only social media accounts that inspire both of you and that cultivate positive emotions.
- Give kids under 15 a “dumb” (i.e., flip) phone without internet and then consider when older teens are mature enough for a smartphone.
Teachers must help preadolescent kids (ages 9-12) to recognize and challenge the utilitarian, materialist ethos that has seeped into the taproots of AI-generated social media. As St. John Henry Newman wrote: “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description.”xxviii
Exposing middle school students to great fantasy stories like The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Ranger’s Apprentice series, and Beauty and the Beast is perhaps one of the best ways to nurture their moral imagination.xxix These tales not only depict character, virtue and goodness in an attractive way, they also challenge young readers to think about the kind of person they want to become, including how best to maturely integrate internet and social media use into their lives.
Educators must teach adolescent students (ages 13-17) that their undisclosed use of AI-generated written material is plagiarism and lying.xxxi Students must understand that the only way instructors can help them to evaluate or improve their literary skills—critical thinking and creativity, especially—is if they submit written assignments reflective of their personal due diligence.
High school teachers would do well to use the film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to help their students study the Ring as a metaphor for social media technology.xxxii Lessons learned from Saruman: surrender to social media spells addiction; from Gandalf: don’t even touch social media if you know you’re not strong enough to counter its corruptive power; from Sauron: the monitoring devices of social media are enervating all of us.
An innovative idea for secondary instructors: teach free, rather than proprietary software. That is, offer software training that will not only “direct society’s future towards freedom,” a rudimentary goal of the mission of education, but also “help high school programmers master the craft.”xxxiii
Attorney and physician, Paul J. Molinaro, insists that the following lawsuits lodged against media networks—and any of the same character that come down the pike—are righteous and necessary to hold them accountable for what they are doing to our tweens and teens.xxxiv
On October 25, 2023, a lawsuit filed by a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general from 33 of the nations’ 50 states complained that, over the past decade, Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta Platforms, Inc. (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Threads) has, first, “profoundly altered the psychological and social realities of a generation of young Americans.” Second, has harnessed “powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens.”xxxv
Several school districts across the U.S. have also filed lawsuits against social media companies, accusing them of harming the mental and emotional life of tweens and teens. The plaintiffs’ claims specified insufficient parental controls, lack of age verification systems, and complicated processes for account deletion.xxxvi
The Church’s unique role is to help tweens and teens travel through the roadways of life and to be open to the “onrush of grace,” expected and unexpected. That includes helping them give up anything that would thwart that rush of grace, including the constant interruption from their social media.
It’s a big order. But, (1) by reinserting God and religion into the public square, (2) by helping youth acquire the virtue of temperance—specifically, self-control vis-à-vis freedom-pilfering social media—and (3) by helping the young recover their rootedness in God, the Church will help prevent tweens and teens from falling into the hands of what some describe as the social networking “monster.”
On May 29, 2023, The Vatican Dicastery for Communication released a document entitled, “Toward Full Presence. A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media.”xxxvii American youth should implement three of its healthy guidelines. First, take a break from social media to pray, silently reflect, and spend time with others in person. Second, begin your conscience examen by asking how your social media use impacts three vital relationships: with God, neighbor, and the environment around you. Third, use social media as a means of sharing Gospel values with people near and far.
Like Plato’s parable of the cave, the goal of all persons and institutions cited above must be to release teens and tweens from seeing only shadows of the online world into seeing the truth, beauty and goodness of the natural world—real life, in real time, with live friendships. To help the young consume social media wisely rather than be consumed by it. In sum, to help our youth win, rather than lose, the game of social media.
iv Notes from author’s personal viewing of The Social Dilemma.
vii Author and psychology professor, Mitch Prinstein, agrees. “For the first time in human history [tweens and teens] have given up autonomous control over [their] social relationships and interactions, and [they] now allow machine learning and artificial intelligence to make decisions for [them].”
ix Notes from author’s personal viewing of The Social Dilemma.
xiii As Prinstein explains, “social media exchanges differ in two important ways from real-life interactions. The former are permanent and public; the latter temporary and private. The former can be socially crippling; the latter less socially unhealthy. “After you walk away from a regular conversation, you don’t know if the other person liked it, . . . and it’s over. . . That’s not true on social media.” [“Why young brains are especially vulnerable to social media.”
xviii A review study in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking suggests, when chronic teen users abruptly stop online social networking, they suffer from bio-psychic symptoms similar to those during drug/alcohol/nicotine abstinence syndrome.
xx Ibid. Studies have shown the addictive pull of dopamine via social media networking makes it harder for adolescents to stop using social media than to give up cigarettes or alcohol.
xxi Nyr Eyal, author of Hooked: Nyr Eyal, describes the “Hook Model,” a four-phased process that social media advertisers use to form users’ habits. Through consecutive hook cycles, products reach their goal of unprompted user engagement and of bringing the user back repeatedly.
xxiv Seven states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Utah, Virginia, Iowa, and Indiana—have passed consumer data privacy laws.
xxvi “Why young brains are especially vulnerable to social media,” “Why young brains are especially vulnerable to social media” | American Psychological Assocation
xxvii Since 1983, the Free Software Movement, initiated by Richard Stallman, has campaigned for computer users’ freedom—for users to control the software they use, rather than vice versa.
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