Are social networks dangerous for teenagers?

Should we be concerned about teens’ use of social platforms? Meeting with a Professor of Developmental Psychology and Educational Cognitive Neuroscience and a Psychiatrist.

There were MSN, Habbo and Myspace; now there is Twitter, TikTok and Instagram. More than ever, social networks occupy an important place in the lives of Internet users, and particularly in those of adolescents. But their use by the youngest raises many questions, about their physical safety at first, but also about the impact that these tools can have on their mental health.

Last September, The Wall Street Journal published an edifying survey, in which Facebook recognized the role that Instagram plays in adolescent malaise. Accused of having turned a deaf ear, the platform quickly defended itself by arguing that the assertions of American journalists resulted from a misinterpretation of this data. Mark Zuckerberg’s company has since revised its copy slightly, now making the safety of these young users a priority. But what are the risks of exposure to social networks from adolescence and what roles should regulators around the world play in stemming this phenomenon?

A difficult relationship with the body

The arrival of the mobile phone, and mainly the smartphone, has shaken up our browsing habits. From now on, social networks are always at your fingertips, accessible with a simple gesture from our home screen. Inevitably, the time spent on said applications continues to grow; according to a Diplomeo study, 56% of young people between 16 and 25 spend more than 5 hours per day on such platforms. This is almost 10% more than in 2019 when they were still only 48%.

Even beyond the time spent on social networks, it is above all the impact that such tools can have on the mental health of young users that particularly worries regulators around the world. This profusion of perfect bodies, often retouched to match unattainable standards of beauty, would have a major impact on the way users perceive themselves.

A mechanism more disturbing than that of the so-called media “traditional” according to Barbara Jiotsa, psychiatrist at the Nantes University Hospital who conducted a study on eating disorders and social networks.

“A star seems more distant and inaccessible. With Instagram, there’s a closeness, something that’s going to be a little more impactful than seeing those perfect bodies on TV or in a movie. Young girls are particularly sensitive to this kind of talk, because they are at a period of big bodily changes, moments in their life when they see their bodies metamorphose and when this increased exposure to so-called perfect bodies can become problematic”.

During her experiment, conducted on 1,300 subjects, half of whom had proven Eating Behavior Disorders (EAT), Barbara Jiotsa explains that she determined a significant association between these eating disorders and the time spent on Instagram, TikTok and others. “The more they scan social networks, the more they are dissatisfied with their bodies.” She tempers, however, “Social platforms do not seem to be a trigger for these behaviors, but simply an aggravating factor in people who suffer from eating disorders.”

To combat this phenomenon, Instagram has nevertheless taken some measures. The social network announced in 2019 an evolution of its advertising policy. Ads about diets or cosmetic surgery are officially no longer accessible to underage users. Nevertheless, partnerships with influencers extolling the effectiveness of appetite suppressant pills or detoxifying herbal teas in the stories are numerous. Same story concerning the apology of aesthetic medicine: a few months ago on Snapchat, reality TV candidate Maeva Ghennam confided that she had used radiofrequency and mesotherapy to “rejuvenate her vagina”. Obviously problematic speeches, especially given the average age of its subscribers.

You like me, therefore I am

This constant exposure to social networks is also often accompanied by a real need for validation by peers. And on the Internet, this validation is manifested by a well-known sign of approval: the like, which makes it possible to signify to a user that his publication is validated. A concept that resonates particularly with young users, who gladly share self-portraits, hoping to collect a significant number of thumbs up along the way. A situation that is nothing new according to Professor of Developmental Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience of Education Grégoire Borst. “It’s brain activity similar to a compliment. It doesn’t say anything very new. When we receive a like in the same way as in real life, we need feedback on what we are doing”.

This validation would thus be necessary for the development of the adolescent according to Grégoire Borst. “If I did a pro-social action and I receive rewards, it’s a way to allow me to commit myself to something longer. But it is also risky…”. Many challenges are thus singled out for their dangerousness. The same ones that a few years ago had emerged on Facebook and put users in risky situations. We still remember the famous “water or restaurant”, which in 2014 caused the death of a 19-year-old young man in Morbihan.

If adult users generally have the necessary perspective, adolescents are particularly sensitive to these phenomena, and often lack discernment on the subject, explains Grégoire Borst, “Adolescence is a period of reconfiguration of the brain, it becomes very sensitive to the social environment again, and is not always able to assess the risk-benefit ratio”. Reinforced by social networks, this group effect would also have an impact on these risky behaviors. “Social networks amplify this phenomenon of social pressure. When we are teenagers, we are more sensitive to our social group and the choices made by it”.

However, the picture is not completely black. Social platforms also play a crucial role in adolescent development, particularly in rural areas which can cut them off from friends and acquaintances. “It is not necessarily outside the circle of family or friends”recalls Grégoire Borst.

“Social networks bring together the groups they meet in real life. We often think about adolescence through the prism of young people in urbanization, but for many it is also a way of staying in touch, as we have clearly seen during this crisis. They have been a way for teenagers to stay connected.”

A common responsibility

During her hearing before the National Assembly last November, whistleblower Frances Haugen called on the government to create a legislative framework to regulate the activities of digital giants, Facebook in the lead. A way to preserve the health of users, for the moment relegated to the background in the concerns of the Zuckerberg empire.

For Grégoire Borst, the safety of adolescents on social networks would not necessarily call for public legislation. According to him, these issues would rather be an individual case. “When we think about this problem, it must be understood according to the personality traits that will be different from one individual to another.” He adds that the benefits of social networks are numerous, especially for socialization. “We must not fall into the banning of these tools before the age of 18, even though we know that there are many advantages”.

Rather than drastic policies, Grégoire Borst prefers a dialogue with parents and teaching staff.

“Schools must become a place where students are trained in these tools. Parents also need to take part in this education. They must be informed of the beneficial and harmful effects of social networks”.

Especially since it is often these same teenagers who are more aware of these issues than their parents. It is therefore necessary that the older generation also learn about these questions, while maintaining the dialogue with their offspring.

A feeling shared by Barbara Jiotsa, who adds that when a parent determines that their child’s relationship with social networks is not healthy, they should not hesitate to seek professional help. “It’s also our role as psychiatrists to get involved”. This can take the form of an informal discussion with the family doctor, who can refer the child and his parents to professionals if the situation requires more specific attention.

Remember, however, that the use of social networks is prohibited for users under 13 years of age. From this age, it is necessary to supervise their use as much as possible, and it is precisely here that dialogue and knowledge of all these issues prove beneficial. However, should we put this education exclusively in the hands of schools and parents? Not necessarily according to Grégoire Borst, who also invites social platforms to tackle the problem head on.

“There is obviously a responsibility of social networks. When we see that YouTube refuses to remove children’s content from its classic platform to put them on YouTube Kids, and thus avoid exposing them to targeted advertising that is not intended for them (on behalf of parents, editor’s note), this is unacceptable”.

But one can logically wonder whether the platforms are really ready to take such measures on their own initiative to protect users. It is mainly thanks to strong measures, such as the GDPR for example, that the practices of digital giants can be regulated. This is at least the argument put forward by Frances Haugen, who ensures that profit will always be favored to the health of users at Facebook.

Better understand this topic

If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, there are plenty of resources that can help you better understand the role and impact of social media on younger people. We can cite, for example, Behind our smoke screens on Netflix, which notably addresses the issue of online harassment. We can also only advise you The Palace of Mirrors by Liv Stromquist who is interested in female beauty ideals and their representation throughout history. A great way to acquire a little knowledge before opening the dialogue with your teenager.

  • Body and Shouts by Eve Cambreleng
  • All Connected by Mathilde Giard
  • Social media, how does it work? by Emmanuel Tredez
  • The Palace of Mirrors by Liv Stromquist
  • Behind our smokescreens on Netflix
  • Internet too, it’s real life!by Lucie Ronfaut-Hazard and Mirion Malle

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