School Beat: Our Children and Social Media

By Adam Burkholder, East Rockford Middle School Principal

When I share with friends and community members my feelings and approach to not allowing students to access social media, a common response is, “Good luck with that.” My response to this sentiment is tell me two good reasons, outside of “this is how they communicate”, that we should allow our children (10-18 years old) to have social media accounts. I have yet to be persuaded. Our children need adversity in their lives. I know this as an educator and trust this as a father, but it is still a challenge in both domains to find balance between growth and support. Social media is generating unhealthy anxiety and creating ugly social norms that are unprecedented. This is, and has been, my feeling for several years, and the statistics now confirm this. Additionally, members of the tech community are now speaking out against the ramifications of social media.

The duty and incredible responsibility of parents and educators is to prepare our kids and build a foundation to ensure they can handle what life will throw at them. Social media makes this difficult, or impossible at times to find the balance we are looking for. Our students, especially females, are experiencing adversity that is unprecedented, difficult to understand as adults, and challenging to support.   Anecdotally, I can speak to this as an educator having worked through social media fallout over the course of the last eight years with students at both the middle school and high school level.

The JAMA Network is a peer reviewed medical journal that has been around since the late 1800’s, and recently shared a study that speaks to what we have been seeing and feeling as educators. In 2017 they published an article titled: Trends in Emergency Department Visits for Nonfatal Self-inflicted Injuries Among Youth Aged 10 to 24 Years in the United States, 2001-2015. The article speaks to, and visually shows, the increase in hospitalizations for various age groups dating back to 2001. Hospitalizations in the study include deliberate physical harm against oneself, inclusive of suicidal and non-suicidal intent. For boys, the line is relatively unchanged. For girls, there has been an increase since 2001, and a sharp increase starting in 2010. Overall, hospitalizations for girls age 10-14 are up 189% since 2001. The first iPhone was released in 2007, and social media apps that worked in conjunction with smartphones came to market in 2010. I am not in a place to say these two elements are causing increased anxiety, but there sure is a strong correlation in timing.

In a recent interview with Chamath Palihapitiya, the former vice president for user growth at Facebook, he shared that there are incredibly strong consequences to social media use. A simple YouTube search of his name will reveal the interview where he shares the following: “We have created tools that are literally ripping apart the social fabric of how society works … no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.” These statements apply to both adults and students alike.

I am not making an argument against technology. My own son, who is an 8th grader, has a phone, and it certainly makes life easier at times as a parent and allows him the ability to communicate with friends, albeit via phone calls and texting. But my own children will not have social media apps on their phones. The costs far outweigh the benefits. Adolescence is challenging enough for our kids and us as parents, so why do we agree to add one more variable that makes our job, and their lives, exponentially more difficult?