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THE PERILS OF SOCIAL MEDIA

By Peace Loise Mbae

The rise in social media use by teens has created a new spate of social concerns, across cyber bullying, eating disorders, falling school grades, early sex, and even suicide, all blamed on a pastime that now sees one in four 13-17 year olds online at any given time, day or night.

A recent survey by Pew Research of the US found that 71 per cent of teens use more than one social media site, with girls dominating visually oriented platforms like Instagram and snapchat.

But the constant attention by youngsters to online socialising has delivered a growing body of ruined young lives.

One such was Danielle Bregoli, who in September last year, went viral after appearing on popular American show, Dr Phil – a show where the host Phillip Calvin McGraw tackles different topics while offering advice for his guests’ troubles.

Danielle became popularly known as ‘cash me ousside’ girl, in a phrase that was derived from her sentiments to the laughing audience.

She said, “Catch me outside, how about that?” but, because of her accent, it sounded like “Cash me ousside, how bow dah?” which surprisingly turned into an Internet sensational meme, making the teen an instant icon for the consequences of obsessive social media use.

Danielle appeared on the show after her mum Barbara Ann wrote to Dr Phil asking for help after her teen girl became uncontrollable by running away from home, dropping out of school, stealing credit cards, being arrested and being overly sexual online.

The teen with 8.3m followers on Instagram was constantly posting pictures and videos of herself, in a behaviour her mum said was not normal for her age.

Danielle was consequently referred to Turn-About Ranch, a residential treatment facility for troubled teens, for four months, but her mum said she did not change.

“She can’t really get a lot healthier right now because she’s got this image that she thinks is distinguishing her on the Internet,” she said.

But Danielle represents a growing phenomenon of teen girls becoming obsessed with image portraying platforms, due to the validation and approval they bring. When pictures and videos attract many likes, shares and comments these youngsters begin to depend on this to feel good about themselves.

However, the negative side that has also grown exponentially is cyber bullying, body shaming, eating disorders and, in extreme cases, death.

Research by Flinders University in 2016 found robust cross-cultural evidence linking social media use to body image concerns, dieting, body surveillance, a drive for thinness and self-objectification in adolescents.

“Visual platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat deliver the tools that allow teens to earn approval for their appearance and compare themselves to others. The most vulnerable users are the ones who spend most of their time posting, commenting on and comparing themselves to photos. We found that female college students who did this on Facebook were more likely to link their self-worth to their looks. Interestingly, while girls report more body image disturbance and disordered eating than boys—the study showed both can be equally damaged by social media,” reported the researchers.

In December last year, 18-Year-Old Brandy Vela committed suicide by putting a gun on her chest as her family begged her not to.

According to the family, the young girl took her life following relentless bullying on Facebook due to her weight.

“They would say really, really mean things like, ‘Why are you still here?’ They would call her fat and ugly. She was beautiful, absolutely beautiful; the only thing people could find to pick on her was her weight,” Jackie Vela, the victims’ sister, told CNN.

Although the case was reported to the police nothing could be done, since the users would create unverified fake accounts that were impossible to trace exploiting the option for anonymity on the Internet.

The obsession with social media is even being blamed for brewing of an idle generation that is constantly on their phones, paying little attention to either their families or their studies.

Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University – Dominguez Hills, found in one study that teen students who were observed studying for a 15-minute period where they were told to “study something important were easily distracted often checking their phones”.

In another study, Rosen surveyed high school students and asked them how often they switch from studying to doing something related to technology, such as checking email, Facebook, texting or watching TV.

“Across all grade levels, 80 per cent of students reported that they switch between studying and technology somewhat often to very often. This is called Continuous Partial Attention, meaning that most of the time, students are not focused on studying but rather are moving their attention back and forth between studying and various forms of technology,” he said.

As a consequence, children who are regularly on social media tend to perform less well than those who aren’t.

Research by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology found that the maths performance of those who accessed social networks on a daily basis was 20 points lower than students who never went online to chat.

“Our study of 12,000 15-year-olds found there was the equivalent of several GCSE grades difference between the reading, maths and science results of students who were heavy users of social media and those who were not,” read the research report.

Yet the use of social media should not be treated just as a bad behaviour, as many teens become addicted to the Internet, and a simple talk, or prohibition, won’t help the situation.

A study from the University of Chicago recently found social media can be more addictive than either cigarettes or alcohol.

The research found social media features such as ‘retweets’ and “likes” give users an actual boost through feel-good brain chemicals, with its absence causing anger, frustration and anxiety.

Psychologists therefore advise phone/computer use regulations as solutions for teens social media obsessions, and therapy in extreme cases, as a way of bringing control to the frenzy.

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