Dr. Jessica Johnson: Social media often toxic for young people

Meta, formerly known as Facebook, Inc., is being sued by a bipartisan group of 42 attorneys general who are alleging that the algorithms and notifications on its social media platforms are addictive and have greatly contributed to the mental health crisis of our nation’s young people. Thirty-three of the attorneys general filed a federal suit against Meta in the Northern District of California, and the remaining nine filed in their respective states.

This bipartisan alliance includes blue states out west with California and Washington on board and stretches to red southern states including Louisiana, South Carolina and Tennessee. Although not many teens are on Facebook, which has mostly become the social media domain of Gen Xers and older millennials, Facebook and Instagram are being called out for alerts and notifications on platform feeds that have had an adverse impact on the mental state of children. The AGs assert that kids constantly scrolling for “likes” and anxiously awaiting updates from posts causes them to negatively compare themselves to their peers.

The Meta lawsuit dropped at the end of October, and in April, the McKinsey Health Institute issued a report titled “Gen Z mental health: The impact of tech and social media.” The younger cohort of Generation Z, which would be those born from the early 2000s to 2012, is a primary focus for the AGs suing Meta.

The MHI study is a large one, a sample size of 42,000, and it not only included Gen Zers in the U.S. but also young people in 25 countries across continents. The survey also represented baby boomers, millennials and Gen Xers regarding their assessments of their mental, social, physical, and spiritual health. It was no surprise that many Gen Zers reported their health as “poor” in these categories. Gen Zers and millennials were the generations who agreed that “social media affects their mental health,” and Gen Z led all categories of social media usage for “check-in frequency” and “posting frequency” for “multiple times a day.” The check-in and posting frequencies are the crucial concerns of the U.S. AGs who maintain that Meta deliberately designed Facebook and Instagram platforms to keep kids hooked on their products.

The legal battle that Meta currently finds itself in has been a thought-provoking topic of discussion for my students in my beginning English composition classes at Ohio State University’s Lima campus. Their last short essay topic for this semester centers on their views of their generation and the influence of technology and communication.

Since they are Gen Zers, I like to think of them as resident experts when it comes to social media as they have grown up with it. When we discussed the AGs’ allegations against Meta, I pointed out to my students that the bipartisan coalition across red and blue states in their attempts to protect children makes this lawsuit especially intriguing. Many of my students are writing their essays from an argumentative perspective and will defend their positions on whether the government should restrict the age at which children can access social media. Some of my female students are planning to share personal testimony in their papers regarding how Instagram has affected their views of body image since they were preteens.

As I look forward to reading my students’ papers, I have also given much thought to the MHI survey results concerning my generation, Gen X. Many would think that my age group in the study, those between 41 to 56 years old, would be able to ignore the lures of social media, but the results showed Gen Xers active on apps and also reporting poor mental health. I have cut down my time on social media, knowing that what inundates my mind affects my emotional well-being. I am making a determined effort to, as Philippians 4:8 encourages, think on things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely and of good report, those things that are the praiseworthy blessings of God in my life.

I have learned and seen that social media is often very toxic for young people. An effective way to combat this would be for Gen X parents to help shift the focus of their Gen Z children to positive things, and for those who are seeking sound spiritual health, to inspire the pursuit of Godly things. Government legislation may eventually be successful in forcing Meta to change its way of business, but lawmaking cannot invigorate the change of self-perspective that our youth need to break away from habit-forming algorithms.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.