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The risks of social media and teenagers

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I have three friends (the real kind) who do not have Facebook accounts. I know this because we sometimes discuss it at informal gatherings in actual physical locales (they're adamant about old-fashioned methods of communication). We talk in person and on the phone and occasionally swap texts, but can't tag photos of each other, comment on status updates, "like" posts or even unfriend the other. All of this must be accomplished in the flesh. Initially, I was baffled by their resistance to such fun new social media, but as it turns out, their intuitions about it may have a stronger case than I originally granted.

On average, in the United States, teenagers send 200 texts a day. Half sleep with their phones and 22 per cent log onto Facebook more than 10 times a day. One researcher at the University of Toronto claims that we should not conclude from these numbers that social media are addictive or negatively affective at all, but most parents and teachers are increasingly worried and frustrated at the ever-improving modes of documenting thoughts and actions spontaneously. The optimistic argument proposes that these voluntarily invasive connections help teens to build strong relationships and support networks that benefit all areas of their lives and that we need to incorporate rather than ban smartphone technology in the classroom.

More concerned commentators, however, point to some worrying statistics. A study The Lancet published of deaths in 50 countries over 50 years, which shows that mortality rates in young adults is increasing while those of younger children decrease. Deaths caused by disease are declining, but those of "injury" -- violence, traffic collisions or suicide -- are replacing them. Experts from this study conclude that urbanization has risks for young adults: "It seems that economic development, the move to cities, increasing urbanization and social dislocation are actually quite toxic for our young people in terms of mortality."

Could the pressures of Facebook, Twitter and texting shoulder any of the blame for these deaths of "injury?" Quite possibly. Another study of depression in young adults demonstrates their tendencies to grow insecure through social media. Perhaps this is simply because Facebook invites its user to compare his life to others', but the anti-social effects are definitely a contender here too. If our primary methods of communicating do not allow for facial expressions, body language, or vocal intonation, the results probably confuse our evolutionary past.

Either way, the solution to this problem is complex. The majority of experts and researchers on this issue advise parents to keep up with new technology and their child's social networking activities, but I'm skeptical that this will have anything other than a negative effect on familial relations. Teenagers need their privacy -- no imposed rules (at school or at home) will prevent them from using this technology. Yes, schools can ban cell phones, but this sidesteps the problem entirely. The root of social media's negative impact is insecurity -- overuse is a mere symptom. Instead of scolding high-school kids about their smartphone-induced inattentiveness, parents and teachers need to address the self-esteem of their teenagers. Though not a quick-fix, it might stop them from sending that 200th text, or checking what their "friends" are up to in their absence.

One final suggestion comes from an information technology professor, who explains that the best way to keep your Facebook friends and to avoid that embarrassing unfriending is to refrain from posting too much: "posting too frequently about unimportant topics" will apparently make you lonely, even on the Internet.

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