virtual children by Scott Warnock

Social media, depression, young girls

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I’m on a little of a generationist roll here (as much as I get on a roll about anything on this blog), but why not? I collect these tidbits, these links, and I’ve been accumulating many lately about the ever-growing body of evidence that social media overconnectedness threatens mental health — and this is especially the case for young girls.

An NPR piece’s title put it bluntly: “Depression Strikes Todays Teen Girls Especially Hard.” The image accompanying that piece is a young girl wrapped in a “blanket of depression” looking at a glowing screen. In another article on Metro, a survey found of Instagram that “the photo-sharing app negatively impacted on people’s body image, sleep and fear of missing out.”

I’ve taken to asking kids lately (man, kids just love when I’m around) how many people they interact with each day. My kids and their friends have had all sorts of answers to this question, and I’m finding them interesting. Initially, they’d say about 50. But then we talked about the parameters: What constitutes an interaction? If you “like” an Instagram post, is that an interaction? If you look at an image, does that count?

After those conversations, we did a little negotiation and figured that by almost any measure, with these new criteria, the numbers of interactions blossomed into the hundreds.

Last Sunday, up until about 4:00, I had only interacted with about four people all day, including texts. I think that for a nearly 50-year-old dude, I am seen by most as having a pretty good social life, but there it was: Four people.

Again, generationist of me, even if I do write this incredibly cutting-edge, well-read blog, but the idea of interacting with hundreds of people is daunting, day after day after day. If your self-image is an eggshell-strength crust built solely from the opinions of others, then it’s downright frightening.

The NPR story was based on an article in the journal Pediatrics, which found that many more girls than boys were having depressive episodes, and the researchers who authored that piece noted that the numbers of teens affected jumped after 2011, suggesting that the increasing dependence on social media by this age group may be exacerbating the problems.

Citing psychologist and author Catherine Steiner-Adair, the NPR article said, “Today’s constant online connections — via texting, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat — can exacerbate that harsh focus on looks and other judgments from peers.”

And Instagram may well be the worst. Think about that — because if you talk to those younger people in your life, Instagram is indeed ubiquitous. Your images have to make it look like life is a party, and you’re that beautiful person at the center of it all.

The solution is tough to define, let alone implement. But the makers of these devices make it seem fun, hip, in, cool, necessary — they position the phone and its apps as integral to your existence. So you tap and touch and poke and look, look, look and judge, judge, judge.

But if it’s a national health crisis, if linking an inherently fragile ego-state with a technology… whew, that puts us on tricky ground that we haven’t been particularly good at navigating (see: gun control debate). However tricky that ground is, though, it’s hard to imagine that we can’t look this problem in the eye more overtly. It’s not that kids are suffering out there; they’re suffering right under our noses.


Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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