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Secondhand Social Media

I grew up in the '70s, a time when there was a smoking section on airplanes. We went to Puerto Rico once, and it was a pretty long flight. Our parents sat in smoking but put us in non-smoking right behind them. Yeah...We know better now, but we breathed the secondhand smoke the whole flight. It was the same in our home- the kids weren't smoking, and the two adults were, so we all were. Now we know. Secondhand smoke is dangerous, and we know its negative health impacts. That's why smoking isn't allowed in public places anymore. To protect those who are not smoking from the harmful effects of others choosing to smoke.


In 2023, more than 40 states are suing Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram, accusing them of using addictive features that "harm children's mental health."

The complaint says, “Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens. Its motive is profit, and in seeking to maximize its financial gains, Meta has concealed the ways in which these platforms exploit and manipulate its most vulnerable consumers: teenagers and children.” One of the essential claims is that Meta knew about the harmful impact but did nothing to address it. In 2021, a Meta whistleblower leaked internal research showing the company knew about the harms Instagram can cause teenagers — especially teen girls — when it comes to mental health and body image issues.


Even without their admission, one can expect these platforms to impact the developing brain, particularly based on loads of adolescent research around brain development and social-emotional growth. Specific brain areas like impulse control, long-term thinking, emotional regulation, and delayed gratification do not fully develop until the early 20s. According to the Social Media and Youth Mental Health report, "Frequent social media use may be associated with distinct changes in the developing brain in the amygdala (important for emotional learning and behavior) and the prefrontal cortex (important for impulse control, emotional regulation, and moderating social behavior), and could increase sensitivity to social rewards and punishments."


At the same time the brain is growing and developing, social and peer interaction takes center stage. Kids are beginning to separate from their parents, explore identities, make new relationships, and test boundaries. A wrong look from a peer or person in the hall can ruin a kid's day. Now imagine that look blown up for all to see and then reshared and liked. Unlike adults, adolescents may experience heightened emotional sensitivity to the communicative and interactive nature of social media.


But my kid doesn't have social media, so we're okay, right? I thought that until middle school started. Day after day, my kid comes home with a story that leads back to someone sharing something from social media- whether it's official sharing from their social media, sharing other’s posts or retelling posts through their filters, even kids who don't have social media are sitting just one row behind their peers, friends, and classmates, breathing in secondhand social media.


Here’s just some of what they are breathing in:

  • 1 in 5 teens say they are on YouTube or TikTok "almost constantly"

  • Teens ages 12-15 who use social media over three hours each day face twice the risk of having adverse mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety symptoms

  • 32 % of teens view social media as harming peers

  • 45% of girls say they feel overwhelmed by social media drama

  • 37% of girls and 24% of boys say social media has made them feel like their friends are leaving them out of things

  • 28 % of girls and 18% of boys say social media makes them feel worse about their lives

  •  13.5% of teen girls say Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse and 17% of teen girls say it makes eating disorders worse

  • 64% of adolescents are “often” or “sometimes” exposed to hate-based content

  • Nearly six in 10 adolescent girls say they’ve been contacted by a stranger on certain social media platforms in ways that make them feel uncomfortable


We have a false sense of security regarding our kids and social media exposure. Age regulations created by the platforms, such as parental consent, don’t do much to keep young kids from signing up. 40% of kids aged 8-12 use social media. Besides, age 13 isn’t the magic age at which discernment and impulse control kick in. Simply put, 13 is the earliest age companies can legally get data. We are naive if we think not allowing our kids to have social media protects them from harmful tactics and content.  If you are anywhere in the vicinity of kids and teens, just listen to the conversation. You don't need to be a user to breathe in the fumes. Parents and adults can mitigate secondhand social media by keeping an open dialogue, remaining curious about their kid's experiences and opinions, and listening, listening, listening, more than talking. For more on how to do this, listen to my latest episode of The School Whisperer.

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