Engagement Is Estrangement
Every parent with a child or children of a certain age knows the visual well. The glowing rectangle held in their small hands, their faces still and fixed on it, the world ignored as it goes on around them. But what is going on inside of them? Specifically, what is the mental toll of this digital diet?
It all started in April of 2006 when Facebook went mobile, putting the social media site on the phone in every member’s pocket. The children coming of age in the years that followed would be the first generation in human history to open their brains to the 24/7 global input of social media. The experiment broadened when Facebook bought Instagram in 2012. After a couple of years of leaving the platform relatively untouched, new features were dribbled in that turned IG into a endless parade of digital envy and conspicuous lifestyle flexing.
And what were the results? For teenage girls, they were disturbing. Research is still ongoing, but the trends tell a story. From 2010 to 2014, rates of hospital admission in the U.S. for self-harm did not increase at all for women in their early 20s, or for boys or young men, but they doubled for girls ages 10 to 14. Similar research has been done in Canada and the U.K.
The visual nature of Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, when combined with the heightened self-awareness that girls experience during adolescence, plays dark games on young minds. Insecurity combines with inadequacy when many girls compare themselves to the endless scroll of influencers and their flawless, filtered glow. What most of them see in the mirror can’t compare.
Meta (the parent company of Facebook and Instagram) has research of its own showing that teens point to increases in anxiety and depression because of Instagram. Congress heard this evidence firsthand when a whistleblower released the research to the public and testified in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing.
But so far nothing has been done. Public officials in the U.S. seem to find the problem too complex to tackle. Congressional members like to bring Silicon Valley c-suite executives before them in public, but policy changes haven’t followed.
Advocacy groups like the Center for Humane Technology think nothing will change until the social media companies experience direct financial harm. One of their ideas is to charge a hefty per-user tax on Instagram for every user between 13 and 18 years old who are on the platform between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. The money collected would be channeled to mental health programs for youth.
Until and unless massive public policy changes come in the form of laws, ideas like this can be a start. Meanwhile, parents must police their own.