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Educators seek to curb ‘troubling’ effects of student social media use

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Chris Hoffman is adamant that the most urgent challenge facing educators today is how to curb the negative effects of social media and smartphone use on children and adolescents.

“I don’t overstate this when I say I believe this is the issue of our time,” said Hoffman, principal of Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham, at a recent school board meeting. “That’s not to say that we should be getting rid of this technology or that we should be avoiding it in any way, but rather we should be engaging in conversation about what does responsible and appropriate use look like.”

Hoffman spoke during a Feb. 8 presentation to the Maine School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors about the impact of social media and smartphone use on students. He was joined by Amy Hamilton, the district’s clinical mental health supervisor. MSAD 75 covers Harpswell, Topsham, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham.

Much of their presentation was deeply disturbing, delving into issues of internet addiction, depression and body image issues, access to inappropriate content, bullying and harassment, the threat of online predators, and even children sharing explicit photos of themselves and their peers.

But Hoffman and Hamilton, both members of MSAD 75’s Mental Health Committee, said it’s a discussion the district needs to have.

Committee members have agreed their top priority should be mitigating the harm to students from social media and smartphone use, and they are working on a plan to achieve that goal, Hamilton told the school board. The first step is to make sure district officials understand the scope of the problem, she said.

“Because if we don’t tell you, you don’t know, and so we want to talk more about what we’re seeing and how it’s impacting our students,” Hamilton said.


‘Comparable to addiction’

Hamilton provided the board with an overview of the national picture. She said up to 95% of kids ages 13 to 17 have reported using at least one social media service, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly.”

“As of 2021, eighth to 10th graders now spend an average of 3 1/2 hours per day on social media, which blows my mind,” Hamilton said.

Despite the existence of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a federal law passed in 1998 to curtail social media use by children under 13, nearly 40% of kids ages 8 to 12 report using it, she said.

It’s unproductive to regard social media use as entirely bad for students, Hamilton said, adding that it has potential benefits such as allowing kids to build community with peers who share similar identities, abilities, interests and experiences.

But when social media use becomes excessive, she said, that’s when negative effects begin to manifest. They include poor mental health outcomes such as increased anxiety and depression, along with increased risk of exposure to harmful content, Hamilton said.

“We don’t really know what our kids are looking at, because they’re doing it on their own time,” she said. “They’re not in front of us — we can’t see it.”

Research has shown a higher risk of harm to adolescent girls compared with their male peers, as well as transgender youths and kids who are already experiencing poor mental health, Hamilton said. They face increased risk of cyberbullying-related depression, body image issues, eating disorders and poor sleep quality, among other issues.

Another serious concern is that “extreme inappropriate and harmful content” continues to be easily and widely accessible to kids, she said. Such content is often fed to children who aren’t looking for it, either via algorithms or other users.

“Social media platforms can be sites for predatory behaviors and interactions with malicious actors who target children and adolescents, leading to serious emotional and safety concerns,” Hamilton told the school board. “Nearly six in 10 adolescent girls say they’ve been contacted by a stranger on a certain social media platform in ways that make them feel uncomfortable.”

Excessive social media use is also linked to attention problems and feelings of exclusion, she said, as kids see “pictures of their friends or classmates, and they’re not in those pictures — they’re not invited.”

Hamilton noted that social media platforms are businesses designed to keep users coming back for more engagement through features such as push notifications, endless content scrolling and social economies based on accumulating thumbs-up or “likes.”

Some research has shown that social media engagement can overstimulate the brain’s reward center, she said, adding, “It looks like addiction — it’s comparable to addiction.”


‘Troubling examples’

Hoffman, the Mt. Ararat principal, said the negative effects of excessive social media use can be seen all around the high school. He views what’s going on at Mt. Ararat as a microcosm of a larger societal problem facing children, parents and educators everywhere.

“As an educational organization, we have a responsibility to at least dip our toes into the conversation the community is having — and maybe should be having — about this,” he said.

As a father of two young children, Hoffman said he is “terrified” about the prospect of handing them their first smartphones. The average age at which U.S. children receive their first phone is now 10 years old, he said.

“Pre-pandemic, there was sort of this movement known as ‘wait until eighth grade’ to get your child their first phone,” Hoffman said. “Personally and professionally, that’s a movement that I would embrace.”

Within MSAD 75, students are barred from bringing smartphones to school prior to ninth grade, at which point they can be used outside of class. Hoffman described the sad feeling of being in the high school cafeteria and seeing kids engaged in lively conversation at some tables while at others, “every single student is looking down at their phone.”

He has witnessed even more “troubling examples” of smartphone and social media use gone wrong, such as students accessing and sharing explicit content.

“Sometimes that includes explicit content of themselves,” Hoffman said. “It clearly has become a thing in adolescent culture to share nude photographs of yourself with a boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, friend, etc.”

Once such images are “out there,” it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll be shared more widely among students, he said. Nude photos can resurface years later, causing prolonged embarrassment and psychological harm.

“That’s a cultural phenomenon that we need to educate our parents about, we need to educate our children about, and we need to be aware of to try to stop,” Hoffman told the school board. “It’s not a comfortable thing for me to sit with a parent and student and talk to them about the distribution of child pornography that’s also themselves, and that’s a real thing.”

Another issue he said educators bear responsibility to teach students about is the way some social media services such as Snapchat share their sensitive information, including precise location data. Hoffman said kids need to understand that enabling location services means anyone using the app can pinpoint exactly where they are.

“I think we can all understand how dangerous that could be for a student to be revealing to the world,” he said.

Even though educators aren’t directly responsible for what kids do online, Hoffman said they have a responsibility to work with parents, community members and organizations to teach students about safe online practices and how to be responsible technology users.

He said the students who’ve been the least negatively affected by smartphones and social media are those whose parents exert significant control over their usage, such as by requiring them to turn off and stow their smartphones after a certain time of night.

“It’s not always the case, of course, but it’s often the case that parental lessons and habits at home do have an impact on the academic success that students experience,” Hoffman said.


Creating savvy consumers

Child social development expert Cynthia Erdley said in an interview that the problems MSAD 75 is grappling with have become widespread with the proliferation of online technologies and services.

“There’s a lot of research that is revealing some of the scary downsides of social media use,” said Erdley, a psychology professor at the University of Maine at Orono. “There definitely is a correlation between social media use and increased risk for anxiety, for depression, body image issues, increased eating disorder behavior, and a lot of these things do reflect … seeking those likes and looking for validation.”

While it can be difficult to prove causation, she said studies have revealed a strong correlation between the advent of smartphones and increased depression and suicide risk among adolescents, particularly girls. Those negative effects have been shown to linger at least through early adulthood.

“(With social media) there’s a lot more emphasis on how you look, how you present yourself, body image-related concerns,” Erdley said. “Girls seem to be at a much-elevated risk compared to boys.”

Girls are also more heavily targeted by predators, she said, but kids often don’t report such interactions to parents or teachers for fear of having their smartphone or other devices taken away.

Outright bans on such devices tend not to work, Erdley said, as they are likely to enhance kids’ perception of social media as enticing “forbidden fruit.”

Erdley said she favors a peer-focused, grassroots approach to helping young people become “savvy social media consumers.” She recommends recruiting older, wiser kids to teach their younger peers safe and responsible online practices.

“If you could have (for instance) high school students talking to middle school students about some of the good and bad experiences they’ve had, and what they would do differently, (and) strategies that they would suggest, that might be a lot more meaningful to the younger consumer(s) of social media,” Erdley said.

Hamilton, the mental health supervisor, said it’s important for the district to look at different ways to “create safe and healthy digital environments that minimize harm and safeguard children and adolescents’ mental health and well-being” during the critical stages of brain and social development.

“As with all choices, there are potential benefits and risks, and (we need to determine) how we are going to best protect our kids, because this isn’t going away,” she said.

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