Years ago, I pulled up in front of a high school to pick up my daughter. Waiting in line behind the other cars, I noticed dozens of teens waiting for rides – most of them looking at their phones, and hardly any talking with each other. The early stages of social media addiction, I suspect now.
Cloaked In Anonymity, Teens Behave Differently On Social Media
As accessibility to various social media platforms has grown, so, too, have the number of adolescents who, a) have their own smartphones, b) spend an alarming number of hours each day on screen media and social media, and c) are subsequently more prone to cyberbullying.
Specifically, more than 80% of today’s teens have their own smartphones. They average more than seven hours a day engaged in social media. And about 70% experience some form of cyberbullying before turning 18.
How is this behavior explained?
According to a new University of George study, the social norms adolescents adapt when online are quite different than when those they use when face-to-face with their peers. Think of it as an alter ego gone wrong.
For example, teens engaged in social media often become more aggressive or critical of others because detached anonymity often shields them from potential retaliation. Also, because they can’t see the direct effect their words and actions inflict on their targets, cyberbullies are less likely to experience feelings of remorse or empathy.
“The perpetrator doesn’t get a chance to see how damaging their bullying is and to learn from their mistakes and do something different,” says Amanda Giordano, principal investigator of the study and associate professor in the UGA Mary Frances Early College of Education. “It’s a scary situation because they don’t have the natural consequences they do with offline bullying.”
The study surveyed 428 adolescents ranging in age from 13-19 years old, including 50% identified as female, 49.1% as male, and 0.9% as other. Participants in the study reported spending on average of more than seven hours online per day, and the reported average maximum hours spent online daily was more than 12 hours.
“You have these adolescents who are still in the midst of cognitive development,” says Giordano, “but we’re giving them technology that has a worldwide audience and then expecting them to make good choices.”
Abundance Of Apps A Gateway To Cyberbullying
It’s disappointing, though probably not surprising, that an app designed to promote positivity among high school students ultimately failed as quickly as it did. The intent of the “tbh” app was to facilitate anonymous positive messaging to friends – to make them feel better about each other.
Launched in late 2017, it quickly became the No. 1 app in the U.S. and was just as quickly snapped up by Facebook. Months later, however, Facebook shut it down due to lack of usage.
Still, with Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, WhatsApp, Kik, GroupMe, Whisper, Yik Yak, YouTube and others, teens are hardly lacking for social media app options. But with many options come many risks.
Too many apps allow users to post “anything and everything” anonymously, and reveal the locations of the users, making them susceptible to various forms of harassment by predators and cyberbullies.
Among teens, the University of George study found that males are more likely than females to engage in cyberbullying, findings which are consistent with past studies that indicate aggressive behavior to be more common among males.
Females, on the other hand, are identified in separate studies as the most prevalent victims of cyberbullying – bullying that may include attacks on teens for their physical appearance, their clothes, their intelligence or athletic ability (or lack thereof), their car, lifestyle, values, family income or status, where they live, who they associate with, their sexual identity, race, religion or nationality, to name a few.
According to a 2018 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 59% of surveyed teens (ages 13 to 17) reported experiencing one or more forms of cyberbullying, including:
42%: Offensive name-calling
32%: Spreading false rumors
25%: Receiving explicit images they didn’t request
21%: Constant asking of where they are, what they’re doing, and who they’re with – by someone other than a parent
16%: Physical threats
7%: Having explicit images of themselves shared without their consent
The Pew survey results support findings from the University of Georgia study in that the likelihood of cyberbullying increases with frequency of online engagement. Of the 45% who said they were online “almost constantly,” 67% had been cyberbullied. Of those who were online “several times a day or less,” 53% had been cyberbullied.
Even When Bullied, Addicted Teens Can’t Tear Themselves Away From Social Media Misery
CompareCamp, an online resource for product reviews and comparisons, makes an interesting observation regarding smartphone addiction. It notes that 75% of Americans use their smartphones while sitting on the toilet – and 19% end up dropping their phones into the toilet bowl.
Depending on your perspective, that could be bad news or good. If nothing else, it would seem to be an indicator of phone-use addiction and, at least to some extent, an indicator of social media addiction, too.
In general, most teens find it difficult to spend much time away from social media, mobile devices, or internet connections, even if it means subjecting themselves to beatdowns from bullies. This is the living definition of addiction.
“Social media addiction is when people crave it when they’re not on it, and continue their social media use despite negative consequences,” explains Giordano.
Among those consequences:
Sleepy during the day after scrolling online late into the night
Poor grades in school
Conflicts with parents
Engaging in online actions that they later regret
“But they still continue to use social media,” she says.
How is such an addiction explained?
According to Giordano, social networking sites, by design, give people dopamine hits – “chemical messengers” in the brain that affect how people feel pleasure. As it applies to teens and social media, dopamine serves as an irresistible hit that feeds their compulsive tendencies.
“It’s feeding into that addictive behavior, and they may be using cyberbullying as a way to get ‘likes,’ ‘shares,’ comments and retweets,” Giordano says. “That’s the common thread you see in behavioral addictions – people start relying on a rewarding behavior as a way to make them feel better when they’re experiencing negative emotions. And so, I think the social media addiction piece is really interesting (because it shows) that there’s another factor at play here, in addition to the number of hours spent online.”
Bullies Beware: It’s a Double-Edged Sword
There are aspects and consequences of cyberbullying that distinguish it from other forms of bullying. According to an anti-bullying government website (Stopbullying.gov), those unique aspects include:
Incessance: Digital devices facilitate opportunities for immediate and unrelenting communication 24 hours a day, making it difficult for youth to find relief from cyberbullying.
Permanence: Most information communicated electronically remains permanent and public unless it’s reported and removed.
Difficult to Detect: Teachers and parents may not see or overhear cyberbullying as it’s taking place, making it harder to recognize.
As the website notes, any content shared online – whether personal, negative, mean or hurtful – creates a kind of permanent public record that can result in negative or ruinous online reputations for individuals when later applying to schools, colleges, employers, clubs, and others.
The irony is that cyberbullying can harm the online reputations of all involved – not just the person being bullied, but also those doing the bullying or participating in it. The potential long-term consequences are just as dire for the perpetrators as their victims.
Social Media Addiction Is The Root Of The Problem
Data from the Pew Research Center survey shows that fully 90% of teens recognize online harassment to be a problem that’s affecting themselves and others in their demographic. That includes 63% who rate online harassment as a “major problem.”
Yet despite the enormity of the cyberbullying problem, surveyed teens said they believe that most people in leadership positions aren’t doing enough about it but should. The majority believe that law enforcement, teachers, social media sites and especially elected officials are doing a “fair to poor” job in the battle against cyberbullies. Only parents were recognized as doing a “good or excellent” job, by 59% of the teens.
If perception is reality, then there’s room for much-needed improvement.
To that end, Giordano believes that counselors should begin assessing adolescents for social media addiction if they are engaging in cyberbullying – and provide treatment plans to help them redefine their relationship with technology. Interventions could include:
Helping adolescents examine the way they define their self-worth
Restricting the amount of time they spend on social media platforms
“There’s quite a few strong and reliable assessments for social media addiction for adolescents that have good psychometric properties. I think when clinicians see cyberbullying happen, they really need to explore the individual’s relationship with social media and to address social media addiction, not just the cyberbullying.”
– Amanda Giordano, principal investigator of the University of Georgia study
Typically, school counselors are unaware of active cyberbullying until after an incident occurs. To get ahead of the problem, Giordano advises schools to take a preventive approach by educating students earlier about cyberbullying and social media addiction, rather than waiting until after the fact to repair the damage. Whether through awareness campaigns or support groups, schools should discuss cyberbullying with students, to explain the consequences of their actions and prepare them for potential risks.
“We need (schools and school counselors) to teach them the warning signs of behavioral addiction, what to do if they start to feel like they’re losing control over their behaviors, and help them find other ways to manage their emotions, rather than turning to these behaviors,” Giordano says. “There are a lot of programs already moving in this direction, and I think that’s amazing and there needs to be more of it.”
Counselors can help decrease the risk of some of these addictive behaviors at a young age by teaching and equipping children with emotional regulation and coping skills.
Microsoft offers common-sense solutions to help teens to curb cyberbullying before it begins, including:
If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it or write it online
Refuse to pass along cyberbullying messages
Tell friends to stop cyberbullying
Block communication with cyberbullies
Report cyberbullying to a trusted adult
Speak with other students, teachers and school administrators to develop rules against cyberbullying
Raise awareness of the cyberbullying problem in your community by holding an assembly and creating fliers to give to younger kids or parents
“If you think about it, adolescents are not only figuring out who they are offline, but they’re also trying to figure out who they want to be online,” says Giordano. “We’re giving them even more to do during this developmental period, including deciding how they want to present themselves online. I think it’s a complex world that we’re asking adolescents to navigate.”
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Pew Research Center:
A Majority of Teens Have Experienced Some Form of Cyberbullying
What Is Cyberbullying
Be Socially Smart:
Top Apps Teens are Using Right Now