The Illusion of Connection

The Illusion of Connection

Looking at youth culture with 10 years of social media effects

By Tone Stockenström

In barely a decade, social media has upended the way we interact with our friends, families, co-workers and the world at large. Many teenagers know no other way of socializing without web-based applications and text messaging as an option. The constant ticker tape of social media streams has a social, emotional and physical impact on teens that is being seen by teachers, parents, doctors and psychiatrists across America.

The 2011 clinical report, The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families, from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) argues that social media can have many positive effects on communication by allowing introverts to make social connections and helping children and teens enhance connectivity while opening doors to a global world of information and people. However, the study also comments on the potential negative impact of social media, which can lead to addiction, depression, antisocial behavior, sexting and cyberbullying.

Khalid Afzal, MD, assistant professor and director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Chicago Medicine (UCM), says that according to one study by Pea and colleagues (2012), the screen time—number of hours spent in front of the screen—jumped from 7.5 hours in 1999 to almost 11.5 hours a day in the study’s population of 8–12-year-old girls. “The exposure of media has increased sexual encounters, suicidal tendencies, depression and decreased real face-to-face social contact,” he says.

In general, Afzal discourages anyone under the age of 12 from having a Facebook account. He says that many teens do not understand the long-lasting impact of posting inappropriate material on social media sites and that these postings can impact youth in the future when job hunting or applying for a variety of professional opportunities.

“Emotional maturity and normal development are dependent on many factors including genetic, epigenetic, social, cultural, spiritual/religious, hormonal changes, exposure to trauma, violence, drugs, so on and so forth. It is hard to have a cutoff that is applicable to everybody,” Afzal says. “In general, the prefrontal cortex, which is the executive center of the brain, continues to develop through the teenage years into the early 20s. Suicidal ideation is an extreme response under stress when one feels overwhelmed and stuck.”

Nayyar Afroz, MD, who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry and also works with adults as a psychiatrist at John Madden Mental Health Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that teens are not learning to interact with one another and are missing important opportunities to develop social and nonverbal cues. The illusion of real connection with others adversely affects social skills among youths.

Constant stimuli also impact the brain. “Adolescents are not given time to retain, process and store the information that is constantly coming in,” Afroz says. “This affects the way that students learn, their memory and, ultimately, their attention span. With everything at hand in their phones, young people can simply visit Google to get a problem resolved. Teens have impaired ability to tolerate delayed gratification, which affects their problem-solving skills.”

Sharon Hirsch, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences & pediatrics, director of the Neurodevelopmental Clinic at UCM, and a mother of a teenage son, sees access to information and technology as an opportunity for the right kids. “Some teens can delay gratification some of the time, but information gathering is certainly viewed in a different way from how it was when you had to wait for the library to open or wait for a return call. Just like teaching teens to analyze what they read, it is important to teach them how to analyze what they find on the web and to take the time to really research.”

In It’s Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens, author Danah Boyd states, “They want to be a part of the broader world by connecting with other people and having the freedom of mobility. … Social media services, like Facebook and Twitter, are providing teens with new opportunities to participate in public life.”

That connection can come at a cost, however. Afroz has seen social media distort reality when it comes to dating. She once had a 19-year-old client who was suicidal after learning of a Facebook boyfriend cheating on her by friending another girl. They had never actually met in person.

Hirsch says that social media impacts youngsters who may already be depressed and hiding out from society. This veil of connection to others is not real interaction and impedes them from exercising, getting out to meet friends and developing new interests. In her practice, Hirsch is seeing a rise in adolescent insomnia due to kids and teens being exposed to their phone’s blue light at bedtime. This exposure can decrease melatonin, increase alertness and reduce deep sleep.

Torin Kavanagh, a student at Lane Tech High School, recently deactivated her Facebook account because she didn’t like how the Facebook Messenger application can, without your permission, videotape you and record what you write in your messages. But she gets caught up on world events and connects with friends through texting and Twitter. “Without my phone, I would miss out on connections with others who share similar interests, and [miss] hearing about upcoming events and world news,” she says.

So what can parents do to maintain a healthy balance? Monitor the amount of media their kids consume. The AAP encourages what it calls “screen-free zones” at home. That means no computers, tablets, phones, television, etc. It says that adolescents and children should not be exposed to entertainment media more than two hours each day and that it should be high-quality content. What determines high-quality content rests with the opinion of the parent.

The fact is that technology and access to what can be consumed and how people interact through that technology is increasing. To maintain a healthy balance, we may have to adapt as quickly as the tech is updated.

Originally published in the Fall 2015 print edition.