Teens Build Double Lives Under Social Media Pressure

Posted August 18th, 2017 at 11:43 am (UTC-4)
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Young internet users are leading double lives as social media increasingly shapes their behavior, often trapping them in a vicious cycle that experts say is detrimental to their health.

Likes, followers, “friends,” instant internet stars, and viral content have become the new measure of social status, particularly with young people between 10 to 20 years old, a tech generation growing up in a connected world.

And they are under tremendous pressure “to alter how they are in an online context in order to be more popular, for social gratification,” said Liam Hackett, founder and CEO of Ditch the Label, an international anti-bullying charity.

So they “benchmark their lives and experiences against the people that they follow,” he said, without realizing that these lifestyles often are portrayed in a positive light and “do not necessarily represent the reality.”

Online, offline lives

(M. Sandeen for VOA/ Techtonics)

(M. Sandeen for VOA/ Techtonics)

Lisa Strohman, a clinical psychologist, calls it a “dichotomous lifestyle” – an online life of phones and technology.

“They have this offline life that isn’t as great because it’s real,” said Strohman, founder of Arizona’s Technology Wellness Center and DCAKids, a nonprofit that teaches children about the safe use of technology.

So they compare themselves to “this unrealistic, largely curated, filtered version of reality, which makes us feel … inadequate,” she said. “And so that puts young people in a psychological state that really impacts them.”

In a recent UK survey of more than 10,000 participants, Ditch the Label found that many young people change their personalities online because they feel “more confident or funnier or more likable on the internet” than they are offline,” said Hackett.

Many said they did this all the time, and most were comfortable talking only about positive things, while assuming their negative experiences were unique to them. He said this creates “huge dissatisfaction” and negatively impacts their mental health, leading to anxiety and depression.

According to these experts, it also encourages cyberbullying. Strohman said the internet and social media offer a platform where people can lead “this kind of duplicitous life online,” where they don’t have to be nice to others.

Bullies crave attention and drama, said John Huber, a clinical forensic psychologist and chair of Mainstream Mental Health organization. They may have thousands of online friends and only two in real life. But online, they feel untouchable.

“They feel empowered. And they feel strong and in control,” he said. “And the more bizarre people act on social media … the more bizarre and extreme they are, the more attention they get. So they get a bigger rush.”

In contrast, he said their real life “continues to be empty and full of false promises.”

All three experts said young people are becoming addicted to technology as they replace face-to-face interaction with social media. And they cited higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among so-called Millennials and young people 10-15-years old.

Real and fake friends

Social media is a powerful and often positive force, but Strohman said it is important to teach children “that their online world is a reflection of who they are in their offline world.”

When kids construct “better” versions of themselves online, they often miss “the importance of friendship and having real friends,” said Hackett. “And you should never sacrifice those high-quality friendships for online digital followers and likes.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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