In 1919, pandemic swept across the globe; millions died, industry failed, and life at the time ground to a halt.
A century later, we find ourselves in the same place, but this time we’re connected through social media. In some aspects, it’s a blessing — but in others, a curse.
The rise of social media has revolutionized the world, shaping how we engage and connect with the world around us. But our reliance on social media has also presented many unintended consequences. That's especially true for children and teens.
Is social media beneficial or detrimental? Roberta McCulloch-Dews, an executive at the Pittsfield mayor’s office, and her son Warren Dews III, who recently graduated from Taconic High School, shared their family's experience with social media and the pandemic.
McCulloch-Dews’ three children — Warren III, 17, West, 14, and Kennedy, 10 — all use social media platforms, including Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. While the older two began using social media in middle school, her youngest knew how to navigate TikTok by age 8. She doesn’t necessarily regret exposing young Kennedy to TikTok, though.
“TikTok is an amazing tool to learn,” McCulloch-Dews said. “(Kennedy’s) been working on her reading skills and when you’re watching these videos and you’re reading these recipes, it’s reading, it’s listening, it’s comprehension — it’s all of that.”
McCulloch-Dews believes that, with the right amount of oversight, it can serve as a gateway to other forms of learning. After checking her daughter’s TikTok comments, she was impressed to see that Kennedy has a political viewpoint of her own.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, my 10-year-old?’" she said.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed over the past year and half, social media usage in individuals 12 years and older has increased by 3% from 2019, raising the estimated users on social media to 233 million, according to The Infinite Dial’s 2021 report.
TikTok, a recent addition to the social media family, quickly rose to stand beside the social media giants, especially among the youth. Even though TikTok was developed in 2017, there were practically no users for the app until 2020. According to The Infinite Dial, in 2020, TikTok was only used by 3 percent of social media users between 12-34 years old. However, by 2021, TikTok’s users in this cohort rose to 14%, rivaling the 15% that use Snapchat. Kids like Kennedy have been turning to TikTok during this pandemic because of its emphasis on entertainment as compared to Snapchat’s stress on communication.
McCulloch-Dews also noticed an increased engagement from her daughter.
“It was a whole new level of engagement that we hadn’t had," she said. "(Kennedy) was really using the app a lot to create different things, and I value that.”
A benefit of social media that both McCulloch-Dews and her son, Warren Dews III, recognized was connection. When asked what he uses social media for, Warren Dews III talked about posting on TikTok “to get laughs out of people” and using Instagram and Snapchat “to show my friends what I’m doing.” He has also used Instagram to “put (himself) out there for coaches for football and sports.”
While social media exhibits these benefits, it also has its downsides — among them possible cyberbullying, cannibalized attention and decreased self-worth.
Kids that used cell phones frequently were more likely to show symptoms of ADHD, according to a 2018 research study by Chaelin K. Ra, M.P.H. from the University of Southern California.
This is most likely due to the nature of notifications and instant gratification through entertainment and social media apps, the study found.
Another 2018 British study found that social media was linked to decreased, disrupted, and delayed sleep, which leads to sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep deprivation, among others. Sleep problems are associated with depression, memory loss, and poor academic performance, which could all help foster decreased self-worth in the long run.
While McCulloch-Dews allows her daughter to use TikTok, she takes precautions to make sure Kennedy isn't exposed to bullying. Warren Dews III also mentioned that it was “a little hard to deal with” when people bullied each other on social media.
She also highlighted social media’s addictiveness.
Surveys through Pew Research Center have found that 95% of teens in America are online while 45% say they are online “almost constantly.” This state of being constantly online is indicative of social media addiction. Therapy Insider’s Massachusetts Behavioral Health team has even taken measures to combat severe cases of social media and internet addiction by setting up wilderness therapy programs for young people struggling with addiction.
“Now, we have to make an active effort to stay engaged with the person right next to (us),” McCulloch-Dews. “It becomes this crutch.”
Similarly, her son mentioned how it was easier to hang out with friends and go outside when he didn’t have social media, but now he is “stuck” to (his) phone daily. It’s hard,” he adds.
The use of social media as a crutch also fosters other negative effects, such as a decreased sense of self-worth, stemming from undue comparisons.
Multiple studies have shown a link between social media and feelings of inadequacy about one’s life or appearances. A 2016 study by Dr. Jean Twenge of San Diego State University showed that the high school graduating class of 2016 spent “an hour less a day engaging in in-person social interaction” as compared to high school graduates in the late 1980s.
Dr. Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, elaborates on this concept. "People end up creating unrealistic ideals for themselves based on what they see and feel distressed when they aren't able to meet those ideas or self-expectations," she said.
“Everyone puts up this curated life on social media,” says McCulloch-Dews, “I’m an adult. I can understand that someone can go through a million and one pictures and only post the top three (to) make (their life) look perfect.” She expressed that it’s harder for children since they “start to internalize that” and “think there’s a deficit.”
When Warren Dews III was younger, he felt the need to “copy” others. However, he described the process as “trying to find himself.” For him, this comparison game between himself and someone else’s social media self reduced as he grew. “Now that I’m older, I really just want to do my own thing,” he said.
During the pandemic, the world was sent into an indefinite quarantine. As life ground to a halt, there was little to occupy ourselves with. Connection became something precious. Some people, especially young people, have been turning to social media for this reason.
Dr. Verolien Cauberghe and others of Ghent University in Belgium created a diagram to explain how social media is used as a mediating variable to actively, socially, and humorously cope with anxiety and loneliness to create feelings of happiness. Social media helps us connect to others and, therefore, fosters happiness through human interaction. This is especially relevant during these times of isolation.
McCulloch-Dews recognized the need for connection and changed her household policies accordingly. She was more lenient with phones and social media because her children needed an outlet. Social media helped them maintain friendships, and her children “really needed the tools provided by social media.”
However, while quarantine caused some people to spend more time on social media, others spent the lockdown interacting with the people of their household more often. This interaction is what Warren Dews III treasured about quarantine.
“During the pandemic, I used (social media) less,” said Dews, “I was able to hang out with my family more.” He also used this pandemic to better himself by working out, finding new hobbies and becoming a more devoted Christian.
McCulloch-Dews said she’s grateful for the increased engagement with people in real life because (her children don’t) have to be on social media all the time. They have options.”
Her son believes that meeting people in person is causing him to use social media more. Having time for himself allowed him to reflect and become a better person. But, going back to physically meeting people made him subject to societal pressures.
“When rappers come out with new albums, it’s so hard not to listen to them when your friends are telling you to listen to them,” he said.
Contributing editor: Kelly L. Anderson