Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Middle School Stuff #7: Social Media

This series of posts explores the tricky side of middle school. Here’s post #7 – Social Media. If you missed earlier posts, here are links: #1 – Judgment, #2 – Friendship Changes, #3 – Popularity,  #4 – Crushes & Dating, #5 – Cliques & Groups, and #6 – Gossip.

While researching Middle School – Safety Goggles Advised, I visited 7th-grade classrooms and talked with students about school social dynamics. When I asked preteens to share middle school’s “tricky” aspects, “social media” came up often. 

These days, many middle schoolers are on social media, and students have mixed feelings about it. Social media has positive benefits as well as negative. Since it is new, research on social media’s health and safety for kids and teens is mixed.

Today, the US Surgeon General released a report calling for more guidelines for social media platforms. “Through the last two and a half years I’ve been in office, I’ve been hearing concerns from kids and parents,” said Dr. Vivek Murthy. “Parents are asking ‘Is social media safe for my kids?’ Based on our review of the data, there isn’t enough evidence that it is safe for our kids.”

Here’s a sampling of the comments I heard from 7th-grade students: 

Middle School Students’ Thoughts About Social Media 

  • “It’s a way for everyone to stay in touch, but we measure ourselves on likes.”
  • “Social media is a good way to communicate, but people get superglued to it. It also feels like it’s an easy way for people to make you feel bad about yourself.”
  • Social media helps you communicate with people, but it also makes you wish you are doing what others are doing or have what others have.”

Essentially, students enjoy connecting with peers on social media. But this also prompts FOMO, comparison, and exposure to inappropriate content as well as mean comments and behaviors. These insights inspired the following table in my book, Middle School – Safety Goggles Advised. 

Cool versus not cool things about social media, table from the book MIDDLE SCHOOL - SAFETY GOGGLES ADVISED by Jessica Speer
middle school students on cell phone and social media
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Research Finds Teens Conflicted About Social Media

A Pew Research Study also found teens are conflicted about social media. About a third of teens (32%) say social media is mostly negative for people their age, compared with about a quarter (24%) who think the effect has been mostly positive.

About four-in-ten teens (38%) say they have felt overwhelmed by the drama they see on social media, while three-in-ten (31%) say it’s made them feel excluded by their friends. There is also evidence that some of social media’s negatives vary by gender, with teen girls being more likely than teen boys to report that social media platforms make them feel overwhelmed because of social drama.

What is undeniable is that the surge in the use of digital technology has changed life’s daily rhythms. Adolescents today spend less time on in-person activities, like hanging out with friends and attending events. Technology use has also contributed to declines in exercise and sleep. The number of high-school students who slept at least eight hours a night fell 30 percent from 2007 to 2019, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic noted.

a girl in red sweater holding her phone while talking to her friend
Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.com

Advice From Middle School Students About Social Media

Social media can be a positive way to connect with others, but it has downsides, especially for preteens and teens. So, I asked middle school students what advice they would give to help other students navigate social media. Their responses were insightful:

  • “Post appropriate stuff, and don’t worry about likes or what others think.”
  • “Be cautious about what you post. Nothing is private. Remember, your grandma, your principal, and even your future college might see your posts.”
  • “Understand you don’t see the whole story. People only post the stuff they want you to see. Everyone has their own problems.”

Building Healthy Digital and Social Media Habits

Parenting in the digital age is no easy task. Kids long for more screen time while caregivers work to instill balance and healthy digital habits. The decision as to when to allow social media is a personal one for families with no simple answer. Regular family conversations about online safety and technology help kids build foundational skills and awareness as digital citizens. The topics in the table below from Middle School – Safety Goggles Advised offer a starting point for conversations that can be revisited often to shape habits and behaviors.

When it comes to social media, tread cautiously and keep talking about it with kids. As shared by the US Surgeon General, we still do not know the impact on youth well-being. Policymakers, according to the Surgeon General’s report, need to develop age restrictions and safety standards for social media — much like the regulations that the U.S. has in place for everything from cars to medicine. Essentially, tech companies have more work to do to make social media platforms a safer space for kids.

The (not so) Scientific Formula for Social Media Use from MIDDLE SCHOOL - SAFETY GOGGLES ADVISED by Jessica Speer

About Jessica Speer

Jessica Speer is the highly acclaimed author of books for kids and teens, including the forthcoming, THE PHONE BOOK - STAY SAFE, BE SMART and MAKE THE WORLD BETTER WITH THE POWERFUL DEVICE IN YOUR HAND (Releasing Summer 2023). She is also the author of the award winning, BFF OR NRF (Not Really Friends)? A GIRLS GUIDE TO HAPPY FRIENDSHIPS and MIDDLE SCHOOL - SAFETY GOGGLES ADVISED, both of which grew out of her work with kids. 

Blending science, stories, and fun activities, her writing unpacks tricky stuff that surfaces during childhood and adolescence. She has a Master's Degree in Social Sciences and a knack for writing about complex topics in ways that connect with kids. Jessica regularly contributes to media outlets on content related to kids, parenting, friendship, and social-emotional learning. For more information, visit www.JessicaSpeer.com

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