Teachers and psychologists say schools need to equip teens with the tools to be aware of the insidious effects of social media

It’s been just over a decade since the internet migrated onto the average Kiwi’s phone.

Today’s teens are the first generation to grow up never having known a life where you can’t reach into your pocket and access the rest of the world through the portal of a smartphone.

On-the-go, easy access to the internet has opened up the world and essentially allowed a significant percentage of businesses to survive through the pandemic operating under the Zoom-borne facsimile of normalcy.

But it’s also a Pandora’s Box that doesn’t want to be closed.

And psychologists are saying New Zealand’s school system needs to focus more on the potential problems a life on the internet can bring.

Especially the effects social media use can have on mental health.

A recent survey from Netsafe showed 40 percent of Kiwi teens use five or more social media platforms, while a third of them spend four or more hours online in an average day.

As a psychologist who treats mainly young people, Bridget McNamara deals with the effects of social media in her therapy sessions frequently.

She said schools need to focus more on teaching teens healthy social media use, and more longitudinal research is needed on the long-term effects of life online.

“The amount of time spent on social media is correlated with negative mental health,” she said.

Psychologist Bridget McNamara would like to see more longitudinal research into the effects of social media on mental health. Photo: Supplied

There are a number of reasons for this, such as the potential for young people to use social media for avoidance – dodging life’s difficulties by staying online. But what McNamara sees over and over again is young people using social media as a cracked mirror.

It reflects the most attractive aspects of other people’s lives in comparison to the young person’s intimate knowledge of the mundane reality of their own day-to-day.

“One of the impacts of social media overconsumption is that you’re always comparing your reflection to other people who are using the platform,” she said. “Whether it’s lives, bodies or body images.”

A longitudinal study from the US in 2019 showed adolescents who spend more than three hours per day using social media have a heightened risk for mental health problems. But similar work in New Zealand to find if our young people have the same risks is thin on the ground.

“More research needs to take place,” said McNamara. “I’d support any longitudinal research on that here, and embedded in that should be more education for young people, as well as parents and care-givers.”

One researcher who has done some work in this area in New Zealand is Dr Eunice Gaerlan-Price, a teacher who recently completed her PhD on gender, success, girlhood and social media at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work.

She interviewed a group of high-achieving teenage girls from four schools across Auckland, and then wrote stories based on their experiences. The girls later reacted to the stories in a group discussion, where Gaerlan-Price was able to record some of the difficulties and triumphs of being a teenage girl in this day and age.

What she found was a high level of pressure on these girls to succeed – not just academically, but also in terms of extra-curricular activities and how they appeared socially.

Of course, the main battleground for the latter point is social media.

“Despite the fact that these women have grown up in an era where they are surrounded by messages of female empowerment, there are still pressures to perform their gender in specific ways,” Gaerlan-Price said. “A lot of it was about showing you live a full and exciting life – maybe showing your amazing beach holiday on Instagram, or a busy social life.”

She noticed the girls were well-versed in online safety such as privacy and avoiding scams, but had less opportunity to critique how they were influenced by what they consumed through social media.

“Even though they know social media shows everyone else’s highlight reel, it still affects how they see themselves through social comparison, and they end up thinking ‘Oh, my life is crap!’” she said.

She thinks schools do a good job of approaching social media from a protection standpoint, but believes there needs to be more of an intentional focus on critical media literacy.

“We need to give them opportunities to dialogue and critique the influence of social media. Give them the space and agency to talk about it without adults bashing them over the head with their own ideas,” she said.

Pauline Cleaver, associate deputy secretary of early learning and student achievement at the Ministry for Education, said she recognises the growing influence social media has over the lives of young people.

The curriculum supports young people to grow their critical literacy skills so that they can make sense of the information they are receiving and where it is coming from,” she said.

She also forecasted that education guides for mental health will be released next year, covering the positives and negatives of social media.

Dr Eunice Gaerlan-Price says we need to give young people the opportunity to discuss the effect social media has on their lives. Photo: Supplied

McNamara said the effect of social media underscores some of the differences between generations.

“It highlights an inter-generational divide even between millennials and Gen Z,” she said. “The problem is people in power and making the decisions may not know what it’s like to grow up with social media from a young age.”

And these changes come at a time when most New Zealanders see the internet as more turbulent than ever.

Another recent study by Netsafe showed 68 percent of people believe the internet is more dangerous than it was five years ago, while 52 percent of respondents believe it will be even more dangerous in five years’ time.

Netsafe CEO Martin Cocker said New Zealanders’ pessimistic outlook on the internet may be the result of online crime increasing as people spend more time online, without the requisite progress in laws around internet safety.

Whatever the outcome, it points to a society in which the internet plays an increasingly volatile role – especially in the lives of digitally-native teenagers.

“The internet was designed as an open neutral platform clear of controls,” said Cocker. “They weren’t thinking of anything more than an open communication platform. But nowadays, we’re expected to do everything important online.”

And in the life of a teenager, what is more important than the careful curation of an outward social persona?

Netsafe is creating learning modules for primary school-aged children which will include such topics as the benefits and risks of social media. Part of the focus will be on teaching young people about how social media may distort perceptions of what is real and may reinforce the need for social validation. 

McNamara said getting young people to be aware of the effect social media can have on them should be the goal.

She is often witness to moments of sudden awareness  – where teenagers realise they may be more influenced by what shows up on the news feed or timeline than they previously thought.

“I often ask young people to go through their social media and ask themselves how any given person makes them feel – is it positive or negative?” she said. “There are a lot of ‘aha’ moments.”

Despite being aware of some of the pitfalls of the platforms, McNamara believes social media is a double-edged sword.

“Social media is always painted in a negative light,” she said. “But it’s not always something bad – it can be used as a great platform for education. It’s all about how we use it – therefore we need that level of literacy and education around the pros and cons.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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