By Sarai Murdock

In a short time, social media has permanently changed the way we communicate. What was once deemed a hobby can now be a career trajectory, with jobs as social media managers and editors, or a pathway to stardom for the right influencers. But all that logging in and scrolling comes with consequences, especially for young people who have a hard time shutting it off.

Research has indicated that spending too much time on Instagram and TikTok leads to lower productivity, negative body image, and a dip in physical health and social skills. High school student Talandria Hall often uses technology to create digital art and complete assignments. “It’s easier to get distracted on a phone than a computer,” she said. “I’m no longer looking at what I’m supposed to be doing, I’m looking at a funny meme I saw on Instagram.”

In October, forty-one states filed a federal lawsuit against Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, arguing that the company has harmed young people’s mental health by creating addictive products and lying about their safety. During the past decade, Facebook and Instagram have “profoundly altered the psychological and social realities of a generation of young Americans,” the lawsuit claims. It also accuses Meta of specifically targeting young users, monetizing their attention through targeted advertising, and designing the applications to prolong their time on social media, much the way a slot machine lures a gambler.

Further, Meta knows that its features cause physical and mental harm to young users and hides these details, the lawsuit claims. Hall, 16, says she felt sexualized on social media. “I feel like women are in the center of it all,” she said, “and especially younger women my age — 15, 16, even younger, depicted sexually — can’t do things because they will attract older men. I feel like for some it makes you more scared to express yourself through fashion, scared to be you, put yourself out there, post, etcetera, simply on the basis of what some random man on the internet would come up with.”

Andrew Easterling, a 20-year-old college student, found trouble managing his social media presence during a weight-loss effort. He would log in and see other men his age working out in the gym and wonder if he’d ever meet his goals. “That would affect me negatively, and I developed body dysmorphia,” he said. “To not compare and remembering why I’m doing what I’m doing helped me stay on track.” With the support of his friends and family, he was able to reach his goals in his weight loss journey.

Qùynh (pronounced “Kwin”) Tran, a college sophomore, has taken about 10 unsuccessful breaks from social media since first downloading Instagram in middle school. It robs her of her focus and keeps her from excelling academically, she says. “Every time I want to get focused on doing something like studying, I maybe take a break and go on social media every 10 to 15 minutes,” she said. “It will take me a lot of time to get refocused, and sometimes if I don’t get refocused, I don’t do the assignment at all.” Tran says seeing so many different beauty standards over the years caused her to compare herself to others and not understand where she fits in. “I’m sort of in this middle ground where I don’t know what I’m supposed to be or what I’m supposed to look like,” she said. “Because there have been so many different standards over the years.”

She’s not alone. Teens and young adults are finding that taking a break from social media leads to improved mental health. They’ve found that spending too much time on Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and the like lead to lower productivity, negative body image, and a dip in physical health and social skills.

Jeremy Murray, a model, actor, and influencer finds it easier to take social media breaks. “After I took a break, I realized it’s not as important,” he said of a three-month break he took from Instagram and TikTok. “I do it all the time,” says Henry Green, 21. “I delete Instagram for three to four days, calm my brain down if I’m not feeling good about something.” He says on a good day, he is not on social media at all. On a bad day, he will be on it for two to three hours.

“For me, I think we need to protect younger generations.” So says 18-year-old Alivia Alicea, Miss Teen Puerto Rico 2023, a self-proclaimed mental health advocate. “There’s a reason there’s an age limit.” Social media has a huge impact on users between the ages of 14-20, Alicea says. As a result of drama, online bullying, and teens comparing themselves to strangers online, it can be hard for young people to look at themselves positively.

The American Psychological Association agrees. This year the organization issued recommendations for adolescent social media use, including limiting social media use for primarily beauty- or appearance-related content. “Social media is neither inherently harmful nor beneficial to our youth,” APA President Thema Bryant said in a May 2023 news release. “But because young people mature at different rates, some are more vulnerable than others to the content and features on many social media platforms that science has demonstrated can influence healthy development.”

Eliza Robert, a high school senior, revealed “I kind of developed a little bit of body dysmorphia because I just saw how even if I felt good about my body that day, I would go on Instagram or TikTok or something and I’d see a video and it would just remind me of ‘oh you know there’s someone out there that has a better body than me’ and then you just kind of feel bad about yourself for the rest of the day.”

Chardonnay Doss, a sophomore in high school, recently deleted her TikTok account and limited her use of Instagram. After falling out with a friend and feeling that some of the drama was spread through social media, as well as seeing the way other users used their platforms to spread hateful comments towards strangers, she stated that she did not feel comfortable coming back to social media until there was less negativity being spread. “I feel like social media takes away some security. It’s kind of untrustworthy, I took a break from it, and I have a lot of schoolwork to do and it’s very stressful. A lot of people that are on social media are very disrespectful and inconsiderate of how people feel,” she said.

Among the other APA recommendations:

  • Adults should monitor and limit social media usage for young children.
  • Minimize content that encourages self-harm or high-risk behaviors.
  • Minimize exposure to content that promotes discrimination, prejudice, hate, or cyberbullying.
  • Ensure social media use doesn’t affect sleep or physical activity.

In their lawsuit, the forty-one states hope to force Meta to make its sites safer for young people. They also hope to enact hefty fines for the features they say are designed to harm children and teens.

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