from the have-we-no-balance? dept
CNN, the news organization that, until recently, employed Chris Cuomo, and still employs Jeffrey Toobin, and is (for the moment at least) owned by AT&T which funded an entire extremist propaganda TV network just to appease President Trump (not to mention being absolutely terrible on privacy issues), wants you to hate social media. There may be reasons to hate on social media, but it’s difficult to take CNN seriously when it presents itself (1) as some unbiased party in this discussion, and (2) puts forth an article that is nothing more than blatant moral panic propaganda about kids and social media.
Are there dangers to kids on social media? Maybe! Are there benefits for kids on social media? Maybe! Does the article only present one side full of anecdotes without any actual data? You bet. The article presents a couple of anecdotes about teens with depression, and then just insists that it’s because of social media. Apparently it may surprise CNN’s reporters to learn this, but teenagers (and adults) have been dealing with depression for a long, long time, including before social media existed. Again, it’s entirely possible that social media creates image problems for teens, but the article repeatedly just insists its true without evidence. It opens with a pure anecdote that is designed to pull at the emotional heart strings.
Last September, just a few weeks into the school year, Sabine Polak got a call from the guidance counselor. Her 14-year-old daughter was struggling with depression and had contemplated suicide.
“I was completely floored,” said Polak, 45, who lives in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. “I had no clue she was even feeling remotely down at all. When I asked her about it, she just kept saying she wanted to get away from it all … but I didn’t know what that meant.”
After taking her to a crisis center, which banned phone use for anyone checking in, Polak learned from her daughter that the pressures of social media were driving her increased anxiety. The main source of stress: waiting for her friends to open and respond to messages and photos on Snapchat.
Okay. But people had anxiety pre-internet as well. It’s easy to blame it on these services, but what actual evidence is there? The article presents literally none.
And the only attempts at pointing to “evidence”… doesn’t say what it seems to think it says. There are just some of the documents Frances Haugen revealed, which showed a study that Facebook/Instagram conducted showing that some teens self-reported that Instagram makes them feel worse about themselves. But what nearly all of the reporting left out — and CNN of course ignores — is that same study showed a much larger percentage said that Instagram made them feel better about themselves.
That doesn’t mean that anyone should discount those who are depressed, or those who claim that Instagram and social media make them feel worse about themselves. Because anything that can be done to help should be explored. But presenting a totally one-sided article that suggests social media is all bad for kids and dangerous ignores all the people (again, a much larger percentage) who found that social media helps them.
It seems most likely that much of it depends on existing personality types and how people use social media. If you use it to make connections and maintain friendships, it can be super helpful. If you use it as a barometer of how much better other people’s lives are, it’s easy to see how it can be damaging. But how do you allow one and prevent the other?
Unfortunately, the CNN piece explores exactly none of this nuance. Instead, it just runs the party line: “social media = bad for teens.” And in doing so it ignores all the many teens who are able to connect with people, or find their communities, or explore interests that their local schoolmates might not have, all thanks to the internet’s ability to bring them together.
Any serious look at the challenges and negative impacts of social media has to take into account the flipside as well, and come up with some sort of plan to balance the two, and explore how do you help encourage more of the good kind of connectivity, and minimize the problematic kinds. But that’s not what CNN gives you. If you read the CNN article you’d naturally assume that all social media is bad for all teens, and the only solution is to take the phone away from your kid.
Later in the article, there’s a second bit of “evidence,” but it comes from Bark, a company that sells parental snooping software and has a huge economic incentive to scare parents into believing their kids are all being lead astray by social media. Again, a thoughtful exploration of the challenges of teens and social media might look for a more credible source, but that’s not what CNN’s reporters were doing. They had a narrative, and they needed to support it, so this is what they got.
Some data also support that mental health issues among young people on social media are on the rise. Bark, a paid monitoring service that screens social media apps, personal messages and emails for terms and phrases that could indicate concerns, said it saw a 143% increase in alerts sent around self-harm and suicidal ideation during the first three months of 2021 compared to the year prior. (Parents receive alerts when Bark detects potential issues, along with expert recommendations from child psychologists for how to address them.)
“Our children’s lives are buried deep within their phones and the problems live within their digital signal in places that parents don’t go,” said Titania Jordan, chief marketing officer of Bark. “If you’re not spending time in the places where your children are online, how can you be educated and then how can you give them guidance?”
Yeah, quote the person trying to sell subscriptions to the service, because that’s reliable and credible.
And the article does basically nothing in exploring the challenges of what you might actually do about this if it were true. There are suggestions of taking away these services from kids, which again kind of ignores that many more people find these services helpful and useful than find them harmful. Or there’s the suggestion — I kid you not — of forcing kids to watch The Social Dilemma.
Polak, the mother whose daughter had suicidal thoughts, has proposed a Mental Health Awareness Week at her daughter’s school that would include screenings of Childhood 2.0 and The Social Dilemma — two documentaries that touch on how platforms are impacting the well-being of its users.
As we’ve explained, that documentary is almost entirely misinformation about how social media applications work. So the “solution” to the bad things that social media does to kids (unsupported by any facts) is to… share with them a propaganda film full of disinformation? Genius.
In 20 years or so, we’re going to look back on these moral panics and laugh, just as we did with moral panics in the past. Rock and roll, Dungeons & Dragons, TV, radio, pinball, etc., all promised to rot our brains. This time around it’s social media.