Written by: Angie Kim and Kaitlin Mayhugh

According to Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe and Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, the usage of social media has become a widely used activity of children and adolescents in this day and age (O’Keefe and Clarke-Pearson). As defined by the WHO, adolescence should be considered individuals in the 10-19 years age group (World Health Organization). For these purposes, social media shall be defined as any websites and computer programs that allow people to communicate and share information via the internet using a computer or mobile phone (“Social Media: Definition”).

It is no doubt that as the modern world progresses in technological advancements, simultaneously it becomes easier to access for any group of people especially now with those of younger age. Within the past couple of years, the sheer amount of adolescents using social media has increased substantially (O’Keeffe and Clarke-Pearson). This problem then becomes a significant topic for discussion as with regular engagements, comes the possibility of exposure to the negative content that social media can present itself with. Thus, the widespread global debate in regards to the potential harm technology can bring is brought up once again. In the likeness of, for example, artificial intelligence: while there are various advantages, do the risks outweigh the benefits? For social media, some of the risks include exposure to the negative effects of peer pressuring, cyberbullying, and possible privacy issues, to name a few.

Indubitably, there are various social media groups that attempt to combat the issue by placing barriers. It is now increasingly common for social media users to have come across the minimum age requirement checkoff while making an account for the application. For example, when users first enter on Facebook’s website, it appears that it is simple to create an account; just enter basic information into five boxes. However, if the user inputs a birthday that corresponds to them being under thirteen, the application immediately restricts them from finishing and creating the account. The same concept is seen in other media sites such as Twitter, Youtube, and etc. Although there is a specified age limit obstacle, there is substantial evidence supporting the usage of false birth dates by adolescents. Secondly, while there are moderators, one can agree on its ineffectiveness as content such as political hate speech and misleading advertisements still bypass moderation and end up being exposed to a great audience on social media. The important question that must be discussed is: should social media application usage be limited in adolescents ten to nineteen years of age to prevent ​negative long-term effects on the user?

One of the most current research in this topic examines the correlation between social media and alcohol use as a result of peer influence. For instance, in the research conducted by Moreno and Whitehill, the idea of alcohol-related content, such as images or marketing ads from alcohol-producing companies, on the social media platform influencing alcohol usage in adolescents is explored (Moreno and Whitehill). The greater number of alcohol content is user-generated by young adults and likely exposed to those of younger age on the application (Moreno and Whitehill). Alcohol-related images include texts (e.g., “Jacob got drunk last night”) or photographs illustrating alcohol consumption. This is significant as it shows that the pro-alcohol messages are being exposed to underaged users due to social media failing to regulate it. More importantly, the effect of peer influence is discerned – one of the paramount issues of social media usage in adolescents.

The alcohol-related references have been linked to alcohol behavior offline as adolescents who were found with posts on Facebook hinting at problem drinking behaviors are more likely to score as an “at-risk” individual during a problem-drinking screening test (Moreno et al.). This same pattern has been observed in non-alcohol related themes. For example, health-risk behaviors (e.g., sexual activity) may be displayed online and be engaged in similar manners offline – adolescents are more likely to display references to sexual behaviors if a peer illustrated similar references on social media (Moreno and Whitehill). The question to ask is: would the adolescent have still participated in these health-risk behaviors without the influence of peers on social media?

Cyberbullying, another newer but prime issue in regards to social media, is commonly encountered in users of any age or group. For this purpose, for an event to qualify as cyberbullying, it must be out of the intention to hurt by the online actions of the sender (e.g, harassing messages, threats, posting humiliating pictures). According to Charisse L Nizon and her study, cyberbullying has seemingly become a global public health concern in adolescents – a reality that has been supported by a plethora of studies worldwide (Nixon). Unfortunately, cyberbullying has become normalized and is expected of the adolescent user population. This is a substantial problem as according to Bryant, the adolescence stage is a vulnerable stage in the development of teenagers in terms of their own identity (Bryant). It is without question that the challenges adolescents face today include issues with body image and self-esteem. Adolescents who have been cyberbullied have reported possessing an increase in depression, anxiety, loneliness, suicidal behavior, and somatic systems (Nixon). This research shows that the potential risk of cyberbullying upon exposure to social media may be greatly potent to the health of the adolescent.

A present study investigating cyberbullying or “bullying via the internet or mobile phone” found that the frequency of online communication is seen as an exposure factor that increases the risk of exposure to cyberbullying (Sticca et al.). In addition, the research showed a longitudinal risk factor for involvement in cyberbullying as not only a victim but as a bully (Sticca et al.). Another similar research interviewed adolescent individuals’ experiences with negative social media practices; besides just cyberbullying, they were contacted by strangers, met by pedophilic attempts, victims of viruses and hacking (Vandebosch and Cleemput). The area of cyberbullying is still relatively new and more research is needed to fully understand the effects it has on adolescent health.
Studies show that teens do care about privacy and in turn, many adolescent users practice privacy-protecting behaviors such as avoiding certain identifying information requests or switching their accounts to “private” mode (Youn). However, majority of the younger social media users do not read the application’s privacy policies or may be unwary of the third party disclosures. ​According to the 2012 Pew Research Center survey, a large portion of adolescent social media users admitted to sharing their school name (71%), city of residence (71%), e-mail address (53%), and cell phone number (20%) (Costello et al.). Additionally, on their online profile, adolescent social media users frequently upload their real name (92%), personal interests (84%), birth date (82%), relationship status (62%), and videos of themselves (24%) (Costello et al.). ​Despite the risks, twenty-one percent of teens agree that it is safe to post personal information publicly (Cox).

Limiting the usage of social media in adolescents can prevent negative deficits that come from possible exposure to peer influence, cyberbullying, and privacy. This addresses the problem as it reduces the likelihood of those events happening as completely restricting social media from an adolescent, while it can be done, is not practical. In terms of peer influence and the subject of body image, a study by Rebecca Watson and Lisa M. Vaughn examined whether or not the length of media usage had an impact on the older adolescents and sociocultural ideals; they found that long-term intervention of social media did decrease body dissatisfaction (Watson and Vaughn). According to Hunt, limiting social media increases mental health (Hunt). In a study where students were assigned to limit social media usage to ten minutes a day, the group showed a significant reduction in anxiety and depression over three weeks when compared to the control group; it concluded that limiting social media use to approximately thirty minutes a day may have significant improvement in one’s overall well-being (Hunt). Based on the research presented, it can be assumed that limiting the usage of social media will simultaneously reduce the amount of exposure to cyberbullying.

As of now, there are alternatives to tackle certain negative aspects of social media without limiting the use. For example, in regards to privacy concerns, there are social media platforms like MeWe and Textile that can replace Facebook and Instagram by providing the same concept, but without bots and third-party interventions that may gain access to private information. In addition, limiting the amount of information shared publicly may help reduce the likelihood of hijacking by strangers or cyberbullies.

Another alternative is simply just being informed of the scope of the risks in using social media. Both parents and adolescents will need to be adequately informed in order to increase self-awareness and thus, avoiding the negative deficits mentioned. For example, if a child is educated about privacy issues that follow with social media usage, then the child can take actions such as refusing to provide private information or make logical decisions to avoid peer influence. It can also be left up to the parents of the adolescents to recognize the signs of a cyberbullied child listed in the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) like skipping classes or loss of interest in favorite activities.

Social media does, however, possess benefits as well as the deficits. Social media has long been used as a tool to reconnect old, form new and maintain friendships/relationships. It is important to note that adolescents stated that social media platforms helped individuals understand others’ feelings and emotions better (Uhls). Another benefit of adolescent social media usage is the role it plays in aiding them in identity formation. Social media allows adolescents, or people in general, to present themselves in any way they choose. So, it can be inferred that this directly encourages personality and character growth. According to Yalda Uhls from the article titled ​Benefits and Costs of Social Media in Adolescence,​ “one study found that adolescents who communicated more online had greater self-concept clarity, which is the ability to understand who one is clearly and stably” (Uhls). Finally, social media has been shown to help youth find like-minded people and aid in feeling less isolated, especially in regards to sexual identity. Social media provides a medium where adolescents can meet new people who they otherwise would not have met and makes it easier for them to find someone who could have the same sexual orientation as them (Uhls). Despite these benefits of social media, however, it is clear that the costs outweigh the benefits greatly. Not only are there quantitatively more costs, but the severity of each deficit is far more significant than the benefits and have the opportunity to create more problems than they’re worth.

With all the research and perspectives in mind, the question originally posed still stands: should social media application usage be limited in adolescents ten to nineteen years of age to prevent ​negative long-term effects on the user? After considering all angles, the answer to this question is undoubtedly a ‘yes’. The exposure to peer pressure, cyberbullying and unprotected privacy are enough reasons to limit usage in adolescents. Not to mention, there are still countless other effects of social media that are yet to be explored given that social media is still a relatively new concept in today’s world. Therefore, limitations should be set in adolescents’ lives regarding social media usage in hopes of reducing exposure to the costs presented. The field of social media and its effects on adolescents is foreign and not fully understood. More longitudinal studies on its deficits need to be conducted in order to fully understand the scope of this issue.


Works Cited

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Cox Communications Teen Internet Safety Survey, Wave II.​ Cox Communications, 2007, http://www.cox.com/takeCharge/includes/docs/survey_results_2007.ppt#271​.
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