Over the past decade or so, an inconvenient truth has begun to emerge on the tech landscape. Simply put, for all the alluring, positive options that tech has provided, there is a dark reality to this world. Never has this become more evident than when it comes to social media and how youth (and adults) are using their devices.
Recently, one of the most educated individuals in this area of research has been boldly stating what many have surmised for some time. As the title conveys in an upcoming free webinar by Mitch Prinstein, the Chief Science Officer of the American Psychological Association (APA), “it’s worse than you think.” Dr. Prinstein has been outspoken in his attempt draw us out of our complacency and seriously consider the ill-advised experiment that our youth especially are being put through in this “age of innovation.”
Consider a couple recent quotes of Dr. Prinstein’s when it comes to the topic of social media. One, “We have already seen how this has created tremendous vulnerabilities to our way of life. It’s even scarier to consider how this may be changing brain development for an entire generation of youth.” Furthermore, “Our brains were not built for this kind of social interaction. And social media is kind of hijacking the need for social interaction with something artificial and insufficient. Social media is the empty calories of social interaction.”
Yet despite Dr. Prinstein’s willingness to speak boldly on such an important matter, many experts and lay people alike remain fearful and hesitant to label what has quickly become the biggest problem facing our youth today. While this is understandable for many reasons, including the fact that most of us rely so much on tech today for our entertainment and livelihood, the reality is that the failure to speak out honestly and assertively against any threat is a huge disservice to everyone, especially our youth, who are most vulnerable.
As an example, I want to highlight part of an article in which Dr. Prinstein was recently quoted, which was published by APA. The article was entitled “Why Young Brains Are Especially Vulnerable to Social Media.” The article provided good coverage on the particular ways that social media can be detrimental to youth, and the factors associated with them being more prone to these pernicious effects. Yet, what I want to draw attention to is a sentence (in variant form) that I have repeatedly seen in other articles and commentaries, which stated for different reasons, unfortunately compromises the veracity and impact of the article. The sentence is as follows: Social media platforms like Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat have provided crucial opportunities for interaction that are a normal part of development—especially during a time of severe isolation prompted by the pandemic.
To be clear, my intent here is not to be critical of the author, but rather draw attention to a common spin that compromises a critical message that all need to hear. For starters, we can all agree that regular interaction is critical for our youth’s development. But the idea that social media platforms, within or outside of a pandemic, are necessary to provide for this is preposterous. For millennia, youth and cultures in most situations have found ways to interact as needed, and evidence indicates that they were no more lonely or unhealthy (and likely less) than today. Furthermore, just because tech and social media have hijacked our culture and our youth in recent times doesn’t mean that we should just resign ourselves to the idea that they need to be part of normal development. That is like saying that although alcohol has serious negative effects with youth, we should just accept that it must be part of social development because it puts them more at ease and many already use it (illegally). Said another way, just because a particular entity provides opportunities for certain positive effects (e.g., increasing connection) doesn’t mean that its use should be sanctioned or justified when good alternatives exist, and a clear body of evidence indicates serious potential for harm―even if it has become part of popular culture.
Yet unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening today with regard to social media and personal devices in the hands of our youth. Which is even more the reason why professionals who have the knowledge and expertise to speak truthfully about matters shouldn’t be influenced in what they say by unhealthy trends. The reality is that even in a pandemic, there are many healthy ways that youth can connect, virtually and not, that don’t involve having their own device or engaging in social media. Yet when we as professionals hedge in what we say, the unintentional message we are sending is “well, it is really a problem, but there is only so much we can do.” At a time when parents are challenged more than ever to make healthy decisions for their kids, what all of us in caregiver roles need is support from those who know best about what most preserves our kids’ well-being. Otherwise, parents are very likely to follow the trends, even when they know it is not the way they should go.
Fifteen years after the iPhone was released, we find ourselves at a critical juncture. We have allowed technology unabated into our homes, our classrooms, and our public spaces; if we are honest, we bought into hype and unconsciously, ceded to its promises. Yet now, we find ourselves in an unwanted place, where once gleaming assurances have become tarnished. I am not naïve to believe that personal devices and social media are going anywhere, but I do believe that we all possess the courage to change the tide for the better, and to start prioritizing our physical, psychological, social, and spiritual health over any other false god. Otherwise, having already reached a crisis of health in this country, the next decade is going to find us in places we really don’t want to imagine. If you think it sounds alarmist, you are right. The time has come to sound the alarm, and put forth the truth as it is, not as we wish it might be. Our phones and social media don’t need us, but our kids surely do.