Earlier this year, Isaac Withers was one of 300 hundred people who attended the Vatican Pre-Synod of Young People, speaking with Pope Francis on the issues that his generation and younger face. Inspired by this incredible trip he has written an eight-part series of articles highlighting these challenges and sharing how we, the Church, can support and nurture this young generation. We are excited to present the first of these articles here.
Online comparison, mental health and what we can do about it!
“When I arrived, they made noise, as young people do. I went to greet them and only a few gave their hand. The majority were with their cell phones, ‘photo, photo, photo. Selfie!’” This is what Pope Francis said when asked about young people recently and as funny as it is that the Pope is irked by selfies when he prefers handshakes, there is good reason to suggest that there is something more serious going on here.
So, how true is it that millennials and Generation Z are lost in the virtual? Is this just another stereotype or is there something bigger happening here?
Facebook’s first quarter of 2018 reported that more than 2.2 billion people now use Facebook every month and more than 1.4 billion people use it daily, meaning that roughly 20% of the world’s population goes on Facebook every day. Facebook tells the world that it ’helps you connect and share with the people in your life,’ and undeniably it does, in fact The UK’s Royal Society for Public Health reported in 2017 that social media is prompting a ‘revolution in peer-to-peer interaction and sharing’. Their research shows that ‘nearly seven in 10 teens report receiving support on social media during tough or challenging times’.
With this new media landscape comes a huge evangelical opportunity for the Church in which we have seen papal tweets become normal and witnessed flagship online studios ‘Word on Fire’ and ‘Ascension Presents’ really blaze the trail of good online formation. However increasingly, research is showing us what heavy use of social media can do to the human brain, and how it is forming this generation of ‘digital natives’ who have never known life without the internet.
In 2012, Harvard University released a study called ‘Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding’. Previous research has proven that 30–40% of everyday speech is used to relay private experiences to others, but this habit of self-disclosure explodes online, with recent surveys indicating that upwards of 80% of posts on social media consist simply of announcements about personal experiences. This is because inside our brains the regions known as mesolimbic dopamine system and the ventral tegmental area (bear with me) respond strongly to rewards such as food, money, sexual attraction, and (this Harvard study discovered) also disclosing information about ourselves.
As part of the study, the researchers offered participants a choice: to talk about something factual or someone else and be given money, or to talk about themselves for no money. Astoundingly, they found that, ‘participants were willing to forgo money merely to introspect about the self and doing so was sufficient to engage brain regions associated with the rewarding outcomes’. We would rather talk about ourselves then be paid to talk about others! They also found that, ‘these effects were magnified by knowledge that one’s thoughts would be communicated to another person’. Sound like Twitter to you?
Not long ago, author and speaker Simon Sinek saw his video analysis of millennials go viral speaking about just this. In his words, ‘Dopamine is the exact same chemical that makes us feel good when we smoke, when we drink and when we gamble. In other words, it’s highly, highly addictive’ ‘It’s why we count the likes’. Sinek points out that to a generation of digital natives, this has become a very dangerous coping mechanism as they go through the stresses of adolescence. ‘When significant stress begins to show up in their lives, they’re not turning to a person, they’re turning to a device, they’re turning to social media, they’re turning to these things which offer temporary relief.’
In 2014, the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology looked into this and rooted the problem in our want to make social comparisons. Firstly concluding that, ‘time on Facebook was positively related to depressive symptoms’ they also found that, ‘participants who make any type of social comparisons on Facebook on a given day appeared more depressed’.
They found that there was a strong correlation between, ‘days that individuals spent more time on Facebook’ and making fewer ’downward social comparisons (e.g., feel they are more accomplished than their Facebook peers). The opposite was true too, that increased time on Facebook led to significant ‘upward and nondirectional social comparisons’. In layman’s terms, the more time they spent on Facebook, the less accomplished it would make them feel compared to their Facebook friends. (To drive this home, we know from the Royal Society of Public Health’s 2017 #StatusOfMind report that Instagram and Snapchat come out as ‘the most detrimental to young people’s mental health and wellbeing’, as they are the most image based platforms.)
The study also makes a compelling argument that the inherent nature of social media encourages this culture of comparison that is driving the rise in depression. ‘Facebook users are exposed to a continual stream of information (i.e., status updates, viewing newly uploaded pictures, friends posting on each other’s walls, liking of other people’s status updates).’ They quote Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase, ‘the medium is the message’ and it seems that the medium of social media itself, coupled with our love of self-disclosure, encourages this comparison and with it, feelings of inadequacy.
Dr Jean M. Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, has spent her career studying generational differences and tracking behavioural differences. In 2012, she began to witness a phenomenon. ‘In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it… The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the Millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time. The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them.’ What was it that happened in 2012 that caused such huge shifts in trends? Twenge eventually realised that that was the year in which Americans who owned smartphones surpassed 50%. ‘The twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.’ Yikes.
In 2017, the Education Policy Institute reported that over a third of UK fifteen year olds are ‘extreme internet users’ which is defined as a someone who uses the internet for more than six hours outside of school on a typical weekend day. They also found that on average sixteen to twenty four year olds report spending twenty-nine hours browsing the internet each week, and two hours twenty-six minutes per day on social media, a full seventy minutes higher than the adult average. And yet, when Barna asked teens about their social media use, they found that 69% think that the amount of time they spend on it is ‘Just Right’.
However, it is not just the amount of time spent online by young people that is worrying here, it is also its ever present nature. Dr Jean Twenge also asked her students at San Diego State University what they do with their phone while they sleep and was very concerned by their response. ‘Their answers were a profile in obsession. Nearly all slept with their phone, putting it under their pillow, on the mattress, or at the very least within arm’s reach of the bed. They checked social media right before they went to sleep, and reached for their phone as soon as they woke up in the morning (they had to—all of them used it as their alarm clock). … Some used the language of addiction. “I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help it”’.
The crux as to why these tendencies are all the more worrying for young people is because they are still developing. To quote Simon Sinek again, ‘Almost every alcoholic discovered alcohol when they were teenagers. When we are very, very young the only approval we need is the approval of our parents and as we go through adolescence we make this transition where we now need the approval of our peers.’ Due to their age, young people (who are naturally drawn to social comparison to fit in) now have an endless and constantly updated stream of the lives of their peers.
There are two solutions that seem clear when we evaluate the symptoms of social media, the first is regulation and the second is encouraging a cultural shift.
Regulation might at first sound impossible, but it is what a lot of these studies conclude and it makes sense to regulate addictive things. Sinek continues his alcohol analogy saying ‘We have age restrictions on smoking, drinking and gambling but we have no age restrictions on social media and cell phones. Which is the equivalent of opening up the liquor cabinet and saying to our teenagers “hey by the way, if this adolescence thing gets you down – help yourself”’. In fact, the #StatusOfMind report found that young people even supported this, finding that 80% supported platforms identifying users who could be suffering with mental health problems from their posts, and 81% supported the introduction of warnings for heavy usage.
The Church should also encourage young people to create open space in their lives again. As Sinek puts it ‘When you don’t have the phone, you just check out the world. And that’s where ideas happen. The constant, constant, constant engagement is not where you have innovation and ideas. … but we’re taking away all those little moments.’ It is also in these moments that we pray and discern and listen for God’s will. If constantly distracted, young people are missing these opportunities to find meaning, to be creative and to build meaningful relationships, but the Church can provide all of these things within the Christian community, built on meaning and rich traditions of prayer and discernment. With a generation that is constantly comparing themselves to others with a growing anxiety about their own worth, the Church more than ever needs to proclaim that we get our worth from being children of God and from being worth a saviour.
Social media and children’s mental health: a review of the evidence from the Education Policy Institute
#StatusOfMind Social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing from the Royal Society for Public Health
Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage Is Linked to Depressive Symptoms in The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology
Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding from the Department of Psychology, Harvard University
Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? by Jean M. Twenge
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