Young and Viral: Why Schools Need to Safeguard Teenagers Trending Online
Teenage years have never been straight forward for any generation, despite the tendencies by those in later life to reminisce about “The Good Ol’ Days.” A sudden rush of hormones and extensive physical change may as well be written down in life’s cookbook as a recipe for disaster.
In the modern age, teenagers still face the same confusing identity crisis, embarrassment and awkwardness that their parents did years before and their grandparent prior to that. Except the world has become a far less forgiving place for young adults with the progression of the digital age.
The influx of technology has brought incredible innovations in the vast majority of industries from medicine to retail, but are younger generations drowning in this mass wave of information, communication and content that is at their fingertips 24/7?
Recent years have brought to light some of the more troubling possibilities that accompany the wonder of social media. From life-threatening ‘games’ to a lack of restrictions on adult recreational activities, the digital age has brought almost as many problems as it has solutions for young people.
Parents play a critical role in combating these dangers. But, with teens spending so much of their time in school, teachers are a critical linchpin in keeping teens safe online. Here, we look into the impact that social media has on teenagers at the most confusing time in their lives, including the long term effects on their mental health and the lengths they will go to for ‘virality’.
Teenagers and Social Media
Social media is everywhere, there is no getting away from it — resistance is futile. While it has many advantages when used properly such as improved communication, finding long lost relatives and connecting with like-minded people, for teenagers, social media has brought with it a whole host of new challenges that previous generations have never had to face. In a world where the number of followers you have on Instagram has more of a bearing on your popularity than the number of people who actually like you in real life and the President of the United States of America communicates through Twitter, it is unsurprising that younger generations are smitten with it.
How big are the issues?
45% of teenagers admit that they are online almost constantly, most commonly using a smartphone. This figure has almost doubled in recent years, rising from 24% three years ago. This startling increase in usage raises concerns over whether teenagers are becoming too dependant on social media, with some teenagers even admitting addiction to it. Unfortunately, this continued access to social media comes with a whole host of issues, from mental health problems to dangerous challenges.
Although age restrictions are in place for some of the most well-known locations of potentially adult content, such as Facebook (13+), WhatsApp (16+) and Tinder (18+), it is the worst kept secret of social media networks that these age restrictions are not foolproof. In a statement from Tinder in 2016, they admitted that 3% of their 50 million users were between the ages of 13-17. While 3% does not sound like a catastrophic amount, in the context of Tinder, that equated to 1.5 million underage users, that they are aware of, because obviously, teenagers would never lie about their age…
What does this mean for teenagers and the adults responsible for them?
The world is a smaller place than it used to be (obviously not literally, but it feels like it). A message from Australia will take less than a second to get to the UK and there are few people in the world that cannot be reached by social media.
This means that teenagers are able to broadcast their tumultuous emotions, crazy trends and controversial ideas for all the world to see. All the world! Forever!
In some cases, this can be an amazing thing, for example, if a teenager is an outstanding writer or an aspiring musician, it gives them a platform on which to build a following and perhaps even a career. But, for the vast majority of people, their awkward teenage years and dodgy fashion sense is something they would much rather never have dragged up again.
It also means that parents and teachers have less control over the children in their care than ever. Parents can ground them, forbid them from seeing their friends, or sneaking into that bar and teachers can traipse through PowerPoint after PowerPoint on the dangers of social media and confiscate endless phones. But, access online means that the whole world is constantly at their fingertips. Social media essentially is a microcosm of life. It is just as unpredictable, ever-changing and uncontrollable as life itself. This makes policing it very difficult.
What can be done to control it?
Parental controls on the content that your children can access at home and effective firewalls in schools are the obvious answers to this question. But, with various devices, networks and that natural sneakiness that all teenagers seem to acquire at the age of 13, this is often not enough.
The most common suggestions include having open conversations with teenagers about their activities online and limiting their use of social media to certain hours of the day. It all comes down to awareness — if you are aware of dangerous trends and websites, you are in a far better place to prevent teenagers from accessing them.
Social Media Challenges
Recent years have been awash with stories in the media about children committing suicide, harming themselves or even performing violent acts on others due to ‘challenges’ that have gone viral.
Types of Challenges
The most recent of these viral ‘challenges’ to intrigue and terrify children and teens, while deeply concerning their parents is the ‘Momo’ challenge. This somewhat horrifying doll character that Tim Burton would be disturbed by, appears and encourages youths to create a ‘cursed’ WhatsApp contact. Through this contact, they are then bombarded with violent images and dares. If these dares are not carried out, she will supposedly murder them.
The challenge encourages young people to self-harm, harm others and, ultimately, take their own life. As with the majority of viral challenges that gain traction, there are now imitators jumping on this twisted bandwagon and creating variations of the game.
Tragically, four young lives have already been lost in connection with the game. This challenge bears a striking resemblance to the ‘Blue Whale’ challenge that went viral in 2015. Here, participants were set 50 challenges in 50 days of an increasingly sinister nature. Challenges started with benign demands to wake up in the middle of the night and watch a scary movie, but eventually become far darker. Participants would be required to carve their arm into the shape of a whale (the reason for the viral name), and eventually to take their own lives.
The similarities between these challenges begs the question, will these horrific games ever be a thing of the past, or will they continue plaguing children and teenagers for as long as the digital age continues?
On a seemingly lighter note, one of the challenges that gained most virality in recent years is the ‘Tide Pod’ challenge, a more lethal and altogether less cute version of the ‘Chubby Bunny’ challenge, where participants have to stuff their cheeks with as many marshmallows as is humanly possible, except for instead of marshmallows, they use Tide Pods.
The risks of ingesting Tide Pods include burns and inflammation of the mouth, breathing problems, oesophageal burns and, in some cases, death due to asphyxiation. Yet, despite the obvious list of harmful consequences and complete absence of any benefits, except potentially going viral or participating in an internet trend, large numbers of teenagers insisted on participating in this challenge.
What is the appeal of these pointless and extremely harmful challenges to teenagers?
Psychologists are suggesting that it is the age-old issue of peer pressure rearing its ugly head yet again for another generation. It is the same reason that teenagers have been doing things that adults view as utterly stupid for generations. The only difference is the scale of the peer pressure and the accessibility to it.
Due to social media and smartphones, teenage trends can now reach millions of young people in a matter of seconds, so not partaking in a trend no longer leaves you out of a group of 5 people, but out of a group of thousands, and prevents them from receiving the praise of thousands of people as well.
The only way to minimise the damage from these ‘challenges’ is the same solution as it always has been — parental guidance. Open conversations about internet use and access, suitable restrictions and staying up to date with the latest trends are just some of the ways parents are protecting their teenagers from these challenges.
Social Media and Mental Health
Viral challenges prove that Social Media can be extremely detrimental to teenagers’ well being. But the effects can be far wider reaching, impacting teenagers that are not directly persuaded to self-harm by viral challenge trends.
A multitude of studies over recent years support this, with reported issues ranging between anorexia, depression, anxiety and bulimia — to name just a few. A study conducted by San Diego State University made the shocking discovery that suicidal contemplation rates had gone up by 12%. Nearly half of the teens who said they spent five or more hours a day on technology admitted to considering or attempting suicide at least once.
Why is social media making teenagers so miserable?
It is easy to forget while scrolling mindlessly through #OOTD and hot-dog-legged holiday posts on Instagram, that these remarkably filtered photographs only show the highlights of people's lives. Remembering this is sometimes challenging as an adult, so for less self-aware and more insecure teenagers, it is near enough an impossibility to remember it most of the time.
Teenage years are riddled with insecurity and low self-esteem. But, add in constant access to images of stick figure women lounging in bikinis in the Maldives, or bloggers with no money or time constraints flaunting their lifestyles and you are setting yourself up for a severe confidence crisis.
Teenager’s brains are still developing and are a sponge for new information and beliefs. Access to constant content streams contributes to teenagers following and striving for unhealthy and unachievable ideals — creating a sense of inferiority or self-loathing that over years can potentially manifest into a full-blown mental illness.
Social media is the epitome of a double-edged sword. One of the greatest innovations of the 21st century for communication and collaboration is creating mass depression and zombification for the youth of today. Limiting the damage done to a generation by social media can be achieved through open and honest conversations both at school and at home, continued research and functional restrictions on adult content.