Opinion | The Roots and Realities of Social Media

By Analiese Maciel

Social media has become an integral part of our lives.

Time and time again students all over the country attend school assemblies focused on one main aspect: Social media. We’ve heard people more than twice our age talk about the dangers of social media. Cyberbullying, pedophilia, our digital footprint; The list goes on and on. However, one main factor is largely absent from these assemblies and their presence only lightly touched upon: mental health. Every day we consume media with a spotlight on the most wanted body types, most trendy clothing, and most popular shows — yet we do not wonder about the long-term effects of consuming media. Though the effects of social media are not entirely negative, it is important to note the habits we do daily and the effects they are having on our quality of life.

Throughout the history of social media, we have seen the rise of a variety of phenotypic traits becoming sought out in both genders. Blonde hair, light eye colors, sculpted figures and other traits are just a few examples of the latest trends in bodily anatomy. While it is important to emphasize that everyone has their own personal preferences, a part of that should not be putting down people that do not have these types of traits. This is where the toxicity of social media comes into play, because forms of bullying, like fat shaming and body shaming, have come to fruition. In fact, an estimated 94% of teenagers stated that they experience difficulties with socialization as a result of shame and embarrassment in their appearance. As self-esteem in teenagers has plummeted, multiple individuals have gone out of their way to search for trends in order to acquire these traits. Ironically enough, social media has picked up on these insecurities and has become a breeding ground for trends and companies that commercialize on the guarantee of a “thinner waist” or “smaller face”. Popular trends like the Carnivore diet, Keto diet, and Atkins have all promised weight loss, but both drastically cut out large portions of ingredients that are able to improve heart health and other diseases while being unsustainable for long term use. The Carnivore diet also puts users at an elevated risk for higher cholesterol levels, and even the Atkins diet (which has been sworn by for centuries) has had increased media attention with regards to detrimental effects on safety and heart health. Because diets are extremely influential as to how we live our lives, it is extremely damaging that social media has used our insecurities against us, and has enabled us to live our lives in an unhealthy physical state. This is why we must be extremely cautious when researching diet trends and reviewing the results of them — a skinnier body is not necessarily a healthier one.

Furthering the self-esteem crisis, there have also been numerous communities on multiple social media platforms encouraging the abuse of unhealthy diets, and even going so far as to encourage eating disorders. Pro-Ana, a community centered around positive perspectives of Anorexia Nervosa, is an example of one of these communities. Their content consists of “thinspiration”, and provides an outlet of ways to engage in behaviors consistent with eating disorders, like binge-eating and purging. Additionally, body-checking — a well-known behavior that has contributed to the ferociousness of eating disorders — has become popularized, with users posting their bodies on social media and having other users insult them or praise them in order to gain the motivation for losing more weight or maintaining a dangerously unhealthy weight. Because of the large amount of body shaming in society, these behaviors have migrated out of social media and now take place and are being defended in real life. Behavior like this is what makes eating disorders more prominent in the teenage population and therefore is why we, as students, must remove judgement from our minds and be kind to others who might be struggling with issues we don’t know about.

The promotion of dangerous behaviors on Pro-Ana sites only serves to exacerbate eating disorders and threatens lives.

But still, some may argue that the negative effects that social media may have on one’s self esteem may be mitigated by the ability to socialize more with like-minded individuals. One of the popular features of social media that has been praised is the ability to have contact with millions of people. Social media has allowed people to create and maintain relationships with individuals across the country and sometimes even the globe. This can be proven by the 57% of teens aged 13 to 17 that have made a new friend online, along with 29% of teens indicating that they have made more than five new friends in online venues. With this, however, a dangerous dynamic has been able to take root and grow faster than ever: grooming. It has been stated that the percentage of parental figures in the US that have allowed their young children to use technology has come to a good 18.3%. While that percentage may not seem high, it is high enough for a child to come into contact with someone that isn’t who they say they are. On average, there have been an estimated 500,000 active child predators online each day. Groomers often make the child they are associating with feel as if they are loved and want to have a relationship with them. They then increase the level of behavior to an even more disturbing extent, going to the lengths of asking for indecent pictures and meeting up with the child. In this process, they also demand the child to be secretive about the behavior and threaten the children with abuse or leakage of the photos if people find out.

The fetishization of these types of relationships have become extremely popular on social media as well. Accounts on TikTok have now categorized relationships with large and inappropriate age gaps as “normal” and even “romantic”. The children on these platforms then fall victim to these videos and intentionally seek these types of relationships out simply because they do not know any better. This makes it easier for child predators to take advantage of children while also making it less likely that the child will reach out for help. Relationships with unacceptable dynamics, such as pedophilia, incest, or rape, aren’t the only things that TikTok has glorified. TikTok has also done a great job of fetishizing people who have committed heinous crimes against humanity by writing fanfic of these individuals or simply praising or excusing their past. One of these examples is 22 year old Cameron Herrin; a boy who was charged with vehicular manslaughter after speeding and unfortunately killing a mother and her one year old daughter. Simply because of his looks, hundreds of users on TikTok have created accounts calling for the release or reduced sentence of Cameron. Other TikTokers have gone so far as to idolize serial killers like Jeffery Dahmer and Ted Bundy through complimenting their looks and intelligence while creating fanbases for other people to join. Through the glorification of these socially harmful actions, kids and other individuals are more likely to think that these behaviors are “cool” or “okay”, which negatively impacts both themselves and every other individual on the platform. The glorification of these relationships should not be as prominent as they are, and therefore why parents AND children should be aware of these topics, as the outcomes can be scary.

To focus more on one of the more emotional faults of social media, there has also been an increase in desensitization towards issues. Social media can be used for so many things and one of the most popular has been the spread of current events. News and gossip all spread at an accelerated amount due to the large number of users on the platform. From that point, people begin to post more and more events occurring in our world to a larger audience simply due to the concentrated number of users. Even in educational spheres of our lives, we have to do research on topics that are morbid in daily life in order for us to stay on top of the statistics and have a non-biased point of view. However, through these seemingly compassionate actions, an adverse reaction occurs: users become desensitized. Because we are exposed to such a highly concentrated amount of dreadful events, we become accustomed to this and begin to gain apathy — simply because it does not surprise us anymore. Numerous studies have shown that the more time people spend watching violent events, the less emotionally responsive they become to violence and victims in the real world, taking away our feelings as a human being. Feelings are what make human beings human beings and if they are taken away, what and who are we, really?

Desensitization to violence from the media can lead to severe emotional consequences.

To sum this up, social media has many downfalls that promote a wide variety of negative behaviors that can impact the way a human functions. Through unhealthy diet trends that affect our physical state and the normalization of inappropriate and pedophilic relationships and fantasization of serial killers that affects our mental state, both our lives and mindsets can be drastically changed through our usage of social media. Thus, it is important for us as human beings to be aware of the pitfalls of social media so we can live our lives as healthily as we can.

Though there have been many downsides towards social media, surprisingly there have been many aces; one of them being the increase of awareness towards issues. Though we did speak negatively about the desentization towards political issues, it has been shown that 54% of teens have gone out of their way to educate themselves on the political issues popular in the news using social media. Speaking from personal experience, during the Black Lives Matters protests I specifically searched out “police brutality statistics” in the attempt of trying to educate those with opposing views. By using specific evidence, I was able to educate others and provide a non-biased point of view in which they could think critically about. Though some people were ignorant and close-minded, a lot of people listened and changed their views. This also parallels with the amount of teen activism accounts that have made their way to social media platforms. Activism accounts make small slide-shows in which they entail the most important statistics and points about issues going on in the world. These slideshows allow teens to process information rather quickly and, in addition to this, share their personal stories for other peers to view as well: creating a domino effect in the world of politics. The truth of the matter is that social media has allowed teenagers to educate themselves on issues outside of themselves.

Social media influencers also have begun to use their audiences as a way of spreading positive content. When searching on YouTube, you are able to find a large number of creators that simply post videos and photos to make their fans content. Numerous creators make videos trying to assist their viewers with anxiety, positive affirmations, improving their mental health, and even providing opportunities to kids who may not be as fortunate as others. Some creators even offer different amounts of money for their fans in giveaways and other prizes as well. Throughout the content being posted, creators are able to provide a safe space for those that may not have anywhere else to vent to, and allow individuals to escape to a safe space. It also allows younger individuals to find information from an adult figure that they may not be able to obtain from their family members. Salem Tolvar and Lavendaire are just some of these YouTubers that have shown their love for their fanbase by promoting body positivity and overall creating a safe space for their fans. This love for their fans has also carried over into these creator’s opportunities to promote positive brands on their pages while turning down profitable sponsorships with brands that they do not agree with. One example of this would be Cristine Rotenberg, also known as Simply Nailogical, who turned down a tea sponsorship while she was a smaller creator that promoted what she viewed as a negative “emphasis for the ideal body for women” that she didn’t want her fans to think was okay. With creators who are socially conscious and care about their fans just as much or more than profit, more individuals are able to find positive role models and safe spaces to unwind.

People have also turned to social media in attempts to buy certain items. All over social media platforms, small businesses have created content in the hopes of making it to the For You page or the Explore page on Instagram. In fact, statistics have shown that 77% of small businesses use some form of social media to gain a profitable income. Even large businesses have taken to social media to show ads for their products and use the instagram shopping section of the app where users can see items tailored to their interests. There have also been sites tailored for creating and offering help with resumes, job applications, and even college applications! Sites like CollegeVine, Zety, and creators/admissions officers from Ivy League schools all are some examples of the beneficiaries of using social media. Apps like Linkedin have become extremely popular in helping people find job opportunities in/around their area by showing available positions to the applicants, which has helped a whopping 35 million people who have been hired by someone they were in contact with on the site. Professional photographers have also been sought out because of their work posted on Instagram which draws attention from social media stars and therefore allows them the chance for their work to be showcased to a wide audience, which results in the creation of additional opportunities that can skyrock one’s career.

Though we must be aware of the many negative effects of social media, we shouldn’t give social media too bad of a rap. Through self-education, the promotion of small and large businesses to consumers, and the possibility of finding a positive community to engage with, social media has the potential to change some people’s lives.

Now that we have spoken about the good and bad ways social media can affect our lives, we can now focus on ways to overpower the negative effects with good. One of the main variables in what we see on social media is the algorithm in which it uses. The good part is that your algorithm can be changed. Maybe instead of seeing sad poetry on your explore, you see a “you can do it!” motivational post instead. However, be wary of this, as even commenting on stuff you do not want to see can allow it to appear more; if you disagree with a video or post, it is best to block the page rather than or after engaging. Additionally, you could use social media as a platform to motivate other people as well. So many people that go to the gym have highlights on their Instagrams in which they post their progress; who’s to say that can’t be you? Still, one must remember that staying safe is one of the main priorities when using these sites, and the best way to do this is to use your brain. Using critical thinking skills when coming into contact with an account that seems suspicious can help you to stay safe. Inspecting their page as well as their follower count can expose many fake accounts, for they will follow an outrageous amount of people with only a fraction of those people following them in the hopes of looking like a real account. Another tell-tale sign is looking at the posts made on these pages. They may have a good amount of posts, but the real issue lies in when they were actually posted. If they were posted all in the same day, there is a good chance the account is fake. Still, what if you simply feel that you are unable to control yourself with social media? You can set a time limit. iPhones allow a feature in which users can set a time limit on certain apps. Allow someone you trust to set a limit and not give you the password. That way, when your time is up, you are not tempted to input the password and continue to overuse social media. There are many ways in which we can be sucked into the world of social media, but by being self aware and keeping good habits, we can reduce any negative effects that may arise.

Though social media has been marketed negatively towards society, it is important to note that there is some good to it. Being able to educate yourselves on issues as well as market your hobbies is a privilege that some people do not have. Despite that, there are still dangers that put our mental health in jeopardy. Social media is no joke — which is why it is important to implement ways to limit our time spent on it and to keep our mental health intact. Still, seeing as social media won’t be going away anytime soon, we may as well try to address the more negative aspects of social media while benefiting from the good.

Analiese Maciel is a rising high school senior from Warwick, New York and a blog writer for Youth Upholding Democracy. The views reflected in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Youth Upholding Democracy.

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