Commentary

Putting Social Media In Its Place

A new study of 1,787 U.S. adults aged 19–32 published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine this week finds that those with high social media use seem to feel more socially isolated than their counterparts with lower use. The researchers define social isolation as “a state in which an individual lacks a sense of social belonging, true engagement with others, and fulfilling relationships” and points out that it has been compared to obesity in terms of potential association with negative health effects.

I’m guessing those numbers would be even dramatic for tweens and teens who, while in search of their identities as they try out different roles, are even more apt to confuse the number of likes they get with being liked as human beings.

This sense of disconnectedness — along with other perils of the social media age such as cyberbullying, sexting and overindulgence — has become a major subject for discussions across the country. Cindy Fincher, for example, led a workshop titled “How to Set Enforceable Limits and Social Media” at the Silverton, Ore., Community Center Wednesday night.

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The certified prevention specialist drew up “10 commandments” for teen social media use for an online publication a few years ago -- but she'll be the first to say it’s counterproductive to “demonize” its use, and that every community, family and kid is different.

“I will talk about different options -- but by the time those parents leave my class, they have at least four boundaries that they have devised that fit their own needs,” Fincher said before the event. “Every family is so different,” she says. “What works for the Smith family may not work with mine.”

Fincher sees her role as that of a facilitator — someone who provides information and empowers participants to make their own decisions.

Empowerment is right up there with making connections as the reason kids say they use social media in the first place. And, truth is, they often find it.

“Ask your children why they are using social media. It’s not all nefarious,” Fara Jones, a school psychotherapist who works with adolescents in Park Slope, Brooklyn, told parents during a panel discussion on digital citizenship moderated by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff in Hastings on Hudson, N.Y., Tuesday evening.

She read excerpts from a questionnaire in which teens talked about all the positive things they use social media for, ranging from mutual support, to creative pursuits in music, art and fashion, to entrepreneurial endeavors,  to getting information on STDs and mental-health issues.

But social media is undoubtedly “changing how we fundamentally are,” Nancy Colier, a New York City-based psychotherapist and author of "The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World," told about 40 attendees. “You’re always on the ready and yet you can’t stop being on the ready.” In a word, we are “twired”: simultaneously tired and wired.

“We are becoming a place we dread. We are becoming a kind of vacuum. So that to be, oh god, left alone with just ourselves, no app, no nothing to fill the emptiness" -- well, you know the feeling.

“We’re not in our lives as it’s happening,” Colier said. We’re more “using life to build a brand.” It's the difference between feeling the crunch of pebbles beneath your feet as you take a walk and taking a walk to take selfies of yourself talking a walk.

The quest is to find freedom “in technology, not from technology” because, as everyone acknowledges, the Snapchat genie is not going back in the bottle. But we need to “take back a sense of control and awareness,” Colier said.

Christopher Keogh, the assistant principal and formerly a technology teacher at Hastings’ Farragut Middle School, opened the presentations by recommending parents look at the material about social media use (as well as other issues impacting youth) that’s available on the nonprofit Common Sense Media site.

Keogh also showed a “CBS This Morning” segment highlighting Common Sense’s 2015 findings that teens were spending almost nine hours a day on “entertainment media” such as listening to music. The most surprising statistic, perhaps, was that only 45% said they use social media on a daily basis, and only 36% said they like social media “a lot.”

“The truth is they feel they have to be there because their friends are,” Common Sense founder and CEO Jim Steyer told CBS’ Jan Crawford. “It’s almost a utility.”

The overarching message I get in listening to the experts is that we all need to talk more, face to face, about what we are posting — as families, as communities, as a society.

I‘ve never believed that “drink responsibly” has a major impact on those young people who are prone to experiment, or those of legal age who are most in need of hearing the message. But it does no harm. And it's a much more useful message than, say, “This Bud’s for You.”

The social media industry would be wise to get behind a movement that, without talking down to young adults, also encourages moderation. The message needs to be simple and empowering. Something like: Use social media. Don’t let it use you. 

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