All graphics by Tyler May
Hello! Good Morning! How are you? I’m fine. For human beings, performing is a part of life: automated responses, scripted small-talk, pseudo-conversations about the weather while passing in the hallways. Teenagers born and raised in the 21st century know intimately the pressures that come with the superficial, performative aspects of social livelihood. Social media asks teenagers to perform to an audience of their peers, and with the amount of time the average teenager spends on his various social media profiles during a given day, the stakes of performing are raised and the consequences often go unnoticed.
When the average teenager picks up his phone to post a photo or perfect a profile, he performs for his 788 instagram followers. And they watch. And he watches them watch him. And they both watch the most skilled performers in this game of branding oneself in the form of an online presence: the actors, the models, the singers, the Kardashians, etc.
But social media has serious emotional and social repercussions for the adolescent that that one dude didn’t see coming when he breathed virtual life into the first portable computer in the 1980s. 40 years of rapid technological development have brought us the global positioning system, the worldwide web, and the smartphone. We have robots that can perform surgery through incisions less than an inch in length, unmanned aerial vehicles, and battery-powered cars. We have made medicine and transportation faster and more efficient than ever.
Unfortunately, in the process of rapid technological development, we have also sold our souls to a pocket-sized god. Smartphones allow us access to a network of data more far-reaching than ever before, and social media allows us the potential to connect with millions of people — both in our immediate lives and halfway around the world. In some senses of the word, we are more connected than ever before.
But as suicide rates among adolescents steadily increase and mental health diagnoses soar, I can’t help but wonder how social media really affects the mental wellbeing of my peers and myself. How is it that we are simultaneously more connected and more alone? The real problem with social media is the inherent limitations of the depth of social and emotional connections possible online where people’s faces are replaced by their usernames and screens separate us from the real world.
Maybe social media is not inherently bad, but the replacement of face-to-face communication in real life with online communication on Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat deprives teenagers of the meaningful social interactions necessary for adequate mental health at a crucial time of individual emotional development.
Social media regularly displays the worst kind of consumerism because we, the consumers, don’t ask the right questions about the real costs. Like any other highly addictive substance, social media must be used responsibly. And moving forward, it’s critical that young people, those of us who feel most intimately the repercussions of social media, are conscious of the ways in which social media affects our mental health, our emotional development, and our ability to form connections with one another.