It is always easier to look at what teenagers are doing and point out how bad it is, but in reality, adults and parents are doing the exact same thing, St Michael’s Foundation school psychologist Darlinka Barbara told The Malta Independent.
“We constantly point fingers at teenagers who spend hours on social media and say how bad they are, when in reality we have adults who do the exact same thing. Social media doesn’t just affect teenagers but also grown adults, and we need to understand this.”
The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) report which was recently published showed how Maltese 15-16-year-old school students use social media. A total of 3,043 Maltese and Gozitan students participated and in 2019, 91% of students reported using social media on a school day and 97% reported using it on a non-school day. The statistics show that a higher percentage of girls use social media for four or more hours when compared to boys.
Today social media has become ingrained as part of society, so such numbers may not shock or even be newsworthy, but there have been a number of reports which have shown anxiety, bullying and loneliness increasing in teenagers due to social media.
The Malta Independent spoke to a number of school guidance teachers to gain a clearer picture of what students are facing and how both teenagers and adults need to learn more about social media.
Social media affects everyone
Whilst teenagers are more likely to be affected and influenced by what they see on social media, St Michael Foundation PSCD and guidance teacher Sasha Grech tells her students that everyone, one way or another is affected by it. “I tell my students that I too am affected by what I see online, but of course at my age I might be more comfortable in my skin unlike teenagers who are still trying to understand who they are.”
On social media no one places a bad picture of themselves, and the uploaded picture would have been one out of a number of takes. “Students know all this, but it still affects them. I have had girls explain to me how if a picture does not receive a number of likes, it can affect their self-esteem and general mood.” The student’s self-esteem and confidence depend on the number of likes received on their social media and this is seen especially in girls. “Some girls have woken up in the middle of the night to check their Instagram to see who has ‘liked’ and ‘commented’ on their pictures and who hasn’t.”
“As a team we are always finding new ways of raising more awareness about social media and the dangers one can encounter online,” explained St Michael Foundation PSCD and guidance teacher Debbie Schranz.
Wanting validation might pressure students to send nudes or sext
All guidance teachers explained how they have seen more students sexting (sending sexually explicit messages or pictures) for them to find validation and to be liked.
Whilst sending nudes is something both girls and boys are doing, Grech explained that girls are more vulnerable to this. “Girls are requested to send nudes much more than boys, and might be labelled as a slut if boys find out that one girl is sending a number of them.” Finding validation through social media is much easier for teenagers, but such actions can lead to negative and dangerous results.
“Unfortunately, such picture can be sent to other students and shared around, and I try to teach my students of who is in the wrong when such pictures are sent,” explained Barbara.
“Many times, students never blame the boy who has shared the picture but the girl for taking it in the first place. Social media can skew with what we believe is right and wrong and make excuses. As much as possible we try to teach our students that just because its accepted doesn’t mean it is right.”
Not being part of social media makes students feel isolated and left-out
Whilst there is the extreme that some students are unable to get off social media, not being on it is just as harmful. “Children do not have an offline or online world; the two are submerged together,” explained San Anton Senior Counsellor Nicolette Camilleri.
“There are students who feel left out and misfits for not being present on social media or for having limited hours online, and this is felt especially after school or during the weekend, when friends chat online, share content and photos, leaving the person with no access completely left out.”
Camilleri explained that instead of stopping children from being online, students need to be taught about the reality of being online and how to make the right decisions.
“The culture of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ is not just real online, but also part of a student’s reality, as the less ‘likes’ they receive affects their anxiety, increases distrust amongst peers and feelings of isolation.” She said that students need to be resilient and not fall for peer pressure to not do what their peers are doing online, and that this is extremely difficult.
For teenagers, technology and social media have been ingrained into their norm and reality and is key part of their socialisation. “Technology and social media can be extremely positive, as it helps children become tech savvy, have educational information at the palm of their hands and is a means for them to socialise, chat and play with their peers.” For Camilleri and other guidance teachers, their main role is to advice not just students but also parents.
“There are these unnatural expectations parents carry for their children, expecting children to read and get off their phones when they do the same thing. “We have parents telling us they want their children to read but then do not do so themselves; children mirror what they see.”
“We provide parents and students with the necessary tools to understand the difference between social media and reality, what is right and what is wrong. We cannot keep pointing fingers that only students spend a long time online when their parents do the same. What we should be doing is entering their world and reality and learning with them how to be responsible.”