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/The Social /G/eneration

“If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.” This is a quote from the documentary The social dilemma. If you were born between the years 2000-2005, you were a part of the first generation to grow up with smartphones and social media being the norm. This was an immense change in culture that no one was ready for, not even the creators of the mainstream social media that plays a huge role in everyday life. Social media is a double edged sword, while it allows the youth to connect, make content, and even make money, it has incredible addictive qualities making a huge negative impact on youth mental health.

Since 2010, the levels of suicide rates increased by 70% among teens aged 15-19. Did that statistic surprise you? Well I hope not because the suicide rates among pre-teens have increased 181%. Why? Instagram, the #1 photo-sharing app launched in 2010, gaining 1 million users in less than a year. Instagram set itself apart from other photo-sharing apps by launching their filter features, which changes the contrast of how a photo appears on the app. The selfie became a trend and the filters have been a huge hit among teens ever since. Who is the second largest age demographic of Instagram you ask ? Teens and young adults typically between the ages of 18-24 statistcally 22.1 percent of Instagram users worldwide. Now this might not seem like a lot but, Instagram currently has over 1 billion users.

As you get deeper into the features Instagram and Facebook have implemented, let’s look at the like button, this would be the biggest mistake of the social media empire. The like button was initially implemented by Facebook, which then purchased Instagram and implemented it there. When you get a like on your photo how does that make you feel? Maybe a better question would be if you don’t get enough likes on your photo ? How do you feel now? The reason you feel so good when you get a lot of likes on your posts is because your brain releases this cool little chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical your brain releases when you feel pleasure, for example during sex or eating a food you really enjoy, your body needs it but in moderation. When you are conditioned from your adolescent years on social media to feel good when someone likes your posts it can create an oversupply of dopamine, leading you to crave it that much more when you aren’t seeing the amount of likes you want, thus making the social media platforms that much more addictive. Recent studies show that the chemical dopamine doesn’t necessarily just create pleasure, it makes us seek it.

Generation Z or “Gen Z” has had social media as a norm since middle school. Personally this is how the reality was for me, I first made an Instagram account at the beginning of sixth grade. At first I noticed that people were just messing around with the app at that age, but as time went on, trends were made. There was a certain way you were supposed to create a post, if you were going to post a picture of you, it had to be perfect, or people would poke fun of you. I’ve been on both sides of this. Apps like Facetune started to become popular among girls in high school throughout the country, reality started to become superficial, things started to get toxic due to how much people would edit simply how their faces looked.

The second mistake Instagram and Facebook made was the tagging feature. This feature allows the user to tag other users in a post/photo that they are also in. When you get tagged in a post you get excited, it causes the same effect as getting a like does, or if a friend posted the picture without telling you, you might feel embarrassed having the opposite effect. Social media is literally a drug, it brings out such comparable effects of drugs that induce excess dopamine into your system. If you check your social media handles on the daily, going on a cleanse can actually cause withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety.

As time went on, we saw the birth of TikTok, which allows people to create short videos of themselves dancing or maybe making something comical. TikTok’s user database shows that their average users are between 16-24. The most followed user on TikTok is 16 years old, Charli D’amelio. The TikTok algorithm made it so your content can blow up randomly, causing a massive surge and increase in followers. At the same time this may seem really cool for a lot of the young content creators on the app, the age demographic simply isn’t ready for this. The amount of body shaming comments D’amelio has received is outrageous, she is constantly criticized for just being a teenager and making mistakes. A huge problem with teens and the TikTok houses is that you are putting your whole life out there for everyone to judge at such a young age and people assume just because it’s an online comment they can say whatever they want since the person is also “famous” and it doesn’t matter. This isn’t the case, along with D’amelio being an extreme case with over 100 million users, someone like Anna Shumate, a Michigan local TikTok influencer has dealt with this, being 18 years old.

The classic negative comments that occur on TikTok or any social media really, are more prominent on that platform simply because the algorithm shares your content more drastically than Facebook and Instagram. The one thing that Facebook and Instagram have more than any social media platform is you, that’s right, your own psychology. Most teens are oblivious to the fact that these platforms take all your data and use it against you, drawing you in and staying on the platform longer. “It’s the gradual,slight,imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.”- Jaron Lanier. The platforms drastically influence kids self worth and integrity, we are not evolved to grasp the concept of being an influencer/having as many followers at a young age of 10,000+ people thinking/seeing us.

Social media promotes this concept of fake and brutal popularity, someone like TikTok’s influencer Bryce Hall values himself higher than most just because he’s got a blue check mark in front of his username whilst people forget he’s still just a regular person. He’s a prime example of what blowing up on one of these platforms so young does to you overtime. You can catch him in headlines throwing massive parties during the COVID-19 pandemic and beating up a bartender because he wouldn’t let him vape in a restaurant. Should he be held accountable ? Yes but, the social media giants should be held accountable for causing such a toxic culture from these kids at such a young age, grooming some into valuing their social status more important just because of the sheer amount of followers someone has, of course some of these people have legit talent but TikTok has made it possible to blow up just so randomly for no apparent reason but the way their unique algorithm is designed.

It is grooming a generation of teens to think they’re full blown celebrities when all they really do is make some dance videos and blow up overnight, there is a huge lack of creative intuition being caused along with giving all these kids exposure to things they’re simply not ready to mentally handle causing huge psychological personality changes. These services are literally causing people in the age demographic of teens to kill themselves, with how exposed social media can really expose you if you aren’t careful cyberbullying has been at an all time high and it’s a lot more lowkey than you would think. It has had a huge effect on body disorders and body shaming, if you post a picture of you on the beach and don’t fit the stereotype of a “bikini body” you’re more likely to be body shamed than posting a picture wearing plain clothes, it’s creating a certain body image that just isn’t realistic for everyone, oh and god forbid you choose the wrong filter.

As time progresses more platforms are marketing to the youth, such as the most prominent example, YouTube for kids, a version of YouTube that is specifically designed for kids to view content that YouTube regulates itself. Rather than watching cartoons that are regulated by TV channels who have to abide by certain laws, kids are now being fed content that YouTube wants to feed them and uses its algorithm to find things to keep the kids watching, spending more time on the application. Social media has never been more prominent for the youth as it is now as technology advances and more and more kids are regularly getting phones before middle school.

To conclude, the social media giants such as FaceBook, Instagram, and TikTok created something they weren’t ready for, they created something that influences how people think and how they view themselves and others. The biggest addictive tool that is used to manipulate it’s regular uses and most importantly it’s youth and their mental health. It’s addictive features make it highly unethical to not be regulated by anyone but themselves. It’s data collection on it’s users while they don’t question it at all are extremely manipulative and unfair to it’s naive teenage userbase. We need to do better by holding our social media platforms accountable and educating our youth about the costs of using social media and how to use the platforms more healthily while incorporating more ethical values in big tech. As someone who runs a social media start up I hope I can learn from these mistakes of the past wave of social media entrepreneurs and do better and incorporate more ethics into product development.




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