Over the past two decades, social media sites have rapidly consumed the lives of millions of young children and adolescents. Children are continuing to gain social experience at an increasingly young age; the entirety of the social world is quite literally at their fingertips. Although this can result in a host of benefits for the child or adolescent, there are also significant risks associated with continued use of social media platforms. Traditional social development has been shadowed by social media; gone are the days of awkwardly approaching a member of the opposite sex when you can easily message them on a social media app. Encounters such as these do not carry the weight of traditional face-to-face conversations, and they subsequently do just as little to help in practical social development. Likewise, new forms of bullying have also risen out of the social media age; with the speed at which information travels today, it is no surprise that bullying has become more consequential than ever before. This study aims to analyze the effects of social media from a developmental lens; key developmental concepts such as Marcia’s Identity Statuses, adolescent egocentrism, pragmatics, and cyberbullying will be addressed in the context of social media.
The first developmental approach to the social media issue involves the Marcia Identity Statuses. These statuses were theorized by Dr. James Marcia, a developmental psychologist who expanded on the work of Erikson. Any child or adolescent can be categorized in one of the four identity statuses: identity diffusion, identity moratorium, identity foreclosure, and identity achievement. Each identity status involves various amounts of commitment and exploration of an activity; an individual that has reached the identity achievement status has explored multiple life options and has committed to pursuing a singular goal. With social media, many children and young teens can find themselves having issues with advancement through the various identity statuses. A 2017 study published to the Sexual and Relationship Therapy journal delves into these issues deeply. The study notes that traditional social development involved a child or adolescent and the family, peers, and school; nowadays the added burden of social media is also present. Developing individuals strive to maintain a positive social media presence: “likes, comments, and followers” represent an essential part of a teenager’s identity and subsequently their self-confidence. This is problematic for a variety of reasons; a teenager basing his or her social development off of the growth of a social media account is bound to go wrong. Many impressionable children and adolescents may get an inflated sense of their identity status as they develop a large media presence; an individual’s social media identity is not comparable to his or her real-life identity. Although many young users may wholeheartedly believe that they have thoroughly explored and committed to an identity via social media, the sad reality is that many of these individuals can be found struggling to make these advances in the real world.
On the other hand, social media can also exacerbate the emotional issues afflicting developing adolescents. Adolescent egocentrism is defined as an adolescent’s heightened focus of the self; this develops from an adolescent’s lack of experience with abstract thoughts. This thought process poses significant consequences: adolescents develop both an imaginary audience (belief that close individuals are highly focused on the adolescent’s appearance) and a personal fable (belief that the adolescent is invulnerable) . Through the years, these beliefs have formed a negative stereotype around adolescents; it is important to understand that these beliefs stem from a lack of emotional experience, not from a sense of defiance. Once social media is introduced into the equation, these troubling beliefs are only grounded further in an adolescent’s thought processes. Psychologists Jacqueline Nesi, Sophia Choukas-Bradley, and Mitchell J. Prinstein from Brown University published a study detailing how adolescent peer relations have transformed with the social media context. In relation to publicness, Nesi and her team found that the imaginary audience that has plagued adolescents for generations is not so imaginary anymore. The public nature of most social media platforms has brought the imaginary audience to life; an Instagram post always has lurkers who see the post but do not perform any interactions with it. Similarly, adolescents are extremely wary of large group chats where an individual’s words or actions can be easily misinterpreted. There is always an audience that can observe the teenager’s appearance and actions with relative ease and without engaging in any sort of direct conversation. This vast interconnectedness holds the adolescents of today to a much higher standard than ever before; when social media fills the imaginary audience void, small blunders can have catastrophic outcomes.
Likewise, social media has also changed another key aspect of child development: pragmatics. Pragmatics is considered the “social side of language”: this includes intricacies such as turn-taking, staying on topic, volume and tone of voice, and strong eye contact. Typically, this is a part of language development for individuals in the childhood stages, not adolescence. However, as social media begins to take a hold of younger children, issues with improper pragmatics are beginning to rise. Firstly, text-based conversations via social media eliminate the both the volume and tone aspect and the eye contact aspect of pragmatics. Simple letters on a screen do not have the ability to communicate underlying emotions in a way that spoken words can; children who become exposed to social media at an exceptionally young age may be oblivious to this and will struggle in face-to-face conversations as they grow. On the other hand, text-based conversations thoroughly eliminate the need to maintain proper eye contact between communicating individuals; confidence levels are hard to determine with a tiny string of letters. Furthermore, the turn-taking aspect of a text-based conversation is also significantly less important. Although in some rare cases it is rude to repeatedly send messages, individuals can still send their desired messages knowing that the person on the receiving end will read them all at once. Unless both individuals are actively using their devices, the turn-taking aspect of a conversation held on a social media platform is almost absent. The only aspect of pragmatics that is preserved by social media is staying on topic, but even that can be arguable with decreasing attention spans in recent years. Pragmatics is an important part of normal language development and is constantly learned as individuals engage in more face-to-face conversations. When this not developed, individuals may face issues as they enter the professional world. A 2019 study by Indian professors Virendra Singh Nirban and Sushila Shekhawat attempts to find a solution to the issue of college students not displaying proper pragmatics when conversing with professors. Nirban and Shekhawat describe students embracing “colloquialism and casual use of language,” which inhibits their ability to excel professionally and communicate with their superiors. This is an example of improper pragmatics bleeding into the professional world; when college students converse with their professors in the same way that they do with their peers, they are demonstrating they lack the social understanding associated with conversation.
Lastly, cyberbullying is arguably the most severe consequence of social media use by adolescents and children. Bullying has existed far before the advent of social media; it has now evolved to exist on online platforms and at a much higher degree than before. Cyberbullying involves electronic technologies and takes various forms: sending mean texts, creating fake profiles, posting embarrassing pictures, and spreading rumors. The public and connected nature of social media platforms allows for cyberbullying to have a much larger impact than traditional bullying. Anything posted on the internet can be retrieved later, leaving many children and adolescents believing that the side effects of cyberbullying can be lifelong even if conflicts are resolved. A 2017 study published in The Journal of Genetic Psychology examines cyberbullying victimization and its relation to body esteem, social support, and social self-efficacy. The study found that in a sample of 204 adolescents, 45% were considered cyber victims. These results indicated a significant correlation with low social support and self-efficacy. Like traditional bullying, cyberbullying can have detrimental effects on adolescents’ social development, particularly in the realm of self-confidence. Many young adolescents may feel that the bullying is justified because they are inadequate; they are no longer able to seclude themselves as cyberbullying scars their internet presence. Their self-confidence deteriorates at unprecedented rates as cyberbullying eventually transforms into traditional physical bullying. Although social media possesses a host of benefits for the social development of young adolescents, the fact that it is a medium for a much more severe and long-lasting form of bullying cannot be overlooked.
Altogether, children and adolescents should be kept far away from social media platforms until they acquire a strong social base. It should be stressed that most social development should occur before social media usage, not during it. This study analyzed the negative effects that social media can have on four developmental concepts: Marcia’s Identity Statuses, adolescent egocentrism, pragmatics, and cyberbullying. Under the influence of social media, adolescents will experience stagnation in relation to developing their own identity. Their egocentrism will be heightened as they attempt to satisfy a public audience. They will lag in pragmatics while remaining unable to escape from cyberbullying. Future research should be dedicated to creating solutions to these issues. As the world enters the technological age, usage of social media by the young is inevitable: researchers should aim to find viable alternatives that satisfy normal development of identity and pragmatics while discouraging egocentrism and cyberbullying. I believe that with time, social media use will be deemed reasonable for children and adolescents; however, in its current state, young individuals should be kept as far away as possible.