ICYMI, social media is proven to increase rates of anxiety and depression in kids. Just today the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory regarding its mental health risks, following alarming stats from the American Psychological Association. But even for parents who know these facts, it may be difficult to conceptualize the specific ways in which social media creates these harmful impacts.
I imagine parents are worried about their kids being targeted by conspiracy theorists or internet stalkers, but from my social media experiences as a 2000s baby, it was typical usage that hurt my mental health. I joined Instagram and Snapchat when they launched during my fifth and sixth grade years, respectively.
My home life was relatively drama-free so it was confusing to browse my peers’ late night Snap stories with blacked out screens behind words like, “Why does it hurt to live?” A twelve-year-old me couldn’t contextualize or process that I was tangentially witnessing someone else’s trauma. I didn’t have the life experiences or maturity to understand clear signs of clinical depression.
Snapchat and Instagram had their own pitfalls for self esteem, through little things like checking to see if my crush viewed my story or how many total viewers I had. More harmful was opening the occasional, wholly unsolicited, d*ck pic or receiving requests for nudes. I never sent nudes, but I definitely wondered if I should when it seemed like all my friends were.
At playdates (we were so young, we were still calling them that) my friends occasionally flashed their t*ts at strangers on Omegle or downloaded porn. My own unprocessed sexual trauma as a kid led me to steer clear from participating, but I still sat idly by.
I never told my parents about what I saw and experienced, because I knew intrinsically they would tell me to get off the platforms, or stop hanging out with so-and-so, and I didn’t want to be left out.
In seventh grade, our school had an assembly about how we should not send nudes. They brought in a litigator to explain that child pornography is, in fact, illegal. I remember this still, ten years later, so it’s not unreasonable to assume the topic also left an indelible mark on the 450 kids in my class.
One thing we didn’t learn in school was how to effectively communicate our emotions. I lacked the vocabulary to articulate the contradictory fire I felt over the fiasco. It was my friend’s nudes that had just gone viral in a high school boys group chat. I was outraged at the peer pressure that landed my friend in that position in the first place.
Peer pressure indeed.
Enter high school, the varsity soccer team, some girls took screenshots of other teammates at house parties, hoping to get them kicked off the starting lineup. Fourteen-year-old me was indignant and afraid to trust my own team or go to parties, a rite of passage for many high schoolers.
I grew up in an affluent area, so photos of teens lounging on family boats or spending winter break in Bora Bora were normal for my feed. This was before the real boom of travel and other influencers. None of us were doing this for money, just likes and comments.
My five years younger brother never set out to become a great photographer but he is one, after one too many family
vacation photoshoots. It’s one thing to grab a photo in front of Big Ben but it’s another entirely to need fifty photos of myself fake laughing in front of the Thames’ sooty brackish water with no historical landmarker backing me up. Bro – I’m cringing and I hope you forgive me for asking the absolute most.
I also cringe that I used to text friends ten of the above fifty selfies and ask, “Which to post?” This was normal for us all, but looking back I see how desperately I requested external validation for my looks.
I’ve never considered myself on the addiction side of the social media spectrum, but as a teen I did actively worry about being able to take a ‘gram-worthy photo on family vacations and I’d definitely check if it got enough likes.
During freshman year of college, my newfound bestie and trusted confidant informed me I was “so different in real life from my Instagram feed.” That was an interesting wake up call for me–a dog loving, occasional Friday night studier who only ever owned one tube of mascara and one glittery eye shadow pallet at a time. My friend had a point. Why should I need a dozen solo-selfies on Halloween, when in reality I dressed up with a friend group I love dearly?
My values didn’t align with the “look at me” Instagram culture, but I had conformed nonetheless, after nearly a decade spent absorbing the platform’s individualist aesthetic. I deleted Instagram right after Halloween.
I broke up with Snapchat a year later in 2019, when TikTok rose to prominence. Snapchat was difficult to leave because it was a common messaging app, but after that point I was entirely off social media and my self image improved. (I still have Facebook but that doesn’t really “count,” because it really is a place for Gen Z to connect with family and at least for me, keep the cloud storage time capsule of every photo I ever took in high school).
Even while avoiding social media altogether, teen group chats can be insidious. Zuckerberg’s predecessor app to Facebook was founded to rank college girls, and I have yet to see whether social media has evolved from that comparative culture.
Boys in my college class had a Snap group where they supposedly ranked girls based on looks. I may never know if these rumors were true, but I did see screenshots where specific girls were ridiculed based on body size. A friend showed me messages where I was the topic of a debate on what kind of "mental issues" I may have.
When I told my partner I was writing this article, they said,
“Those big group chats are like nesting dolls with smaller ones inside, and there’s the feeling of always being left out of an omnipresent core group.”
Until now I haven’t written about statistics and anxiety and depression, but I will leave you with this: The CEO of TikTok doesn’t even let his own children use it. I don’t know what the answer is to this social media mess. Even though I didn't purposefully seeking out inappropriate things, like pro-anorexia content, I still felt worn out by social comparison, I still had anxiety, and I still developed an eating disorder. I don’t attribute any of these illnesses to social media, but they certainly weren’t helped by it either.
I know my mental health has improved without social media, but I can’t help but wonder if I would feel more plugged-in to my generation’s interests and pop culture if I had never left. Or at the very least I’d know when to text everyone happy birthday.
Me, 2017. Because you've never seen water or horses.