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The Loneliness Radio Project, Ep. 2: How does social media impact young people’s mental health? [AUDIO]

Welcome to the second episode of The Loneliness Project, an audio production of WRFI and the Ithaca College Park Scholars Program. From mental health to social media, reporters throughout the Ithaca community are analyzing the issue of loneliness through multiple lenses. This piece is also part of a larger multimedia collaboration with The Ithaca Voice and The Cornell Daily Sun.

One of the first things people bring up when they think about loneliness among young people is the role social media plays. So, we wanted one of the first pieces to address this important subject, as well as how technology like smartphones impact college-age youth.

To start, we wanted to see how widespread platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook are at Ithaca College. And, nearly everyone we spoke to? They use these apps.
In this episode, we talk to experts and student mental health leaders to understand how social media affects young people, and what young people can do to lessen its affects.

Bronte Cook, Maia Noah, and Julianne Grillo reported and produced this piece. Laura Rosbrow-Telem, the news director at WRFI, editorially supervised this episode and Jackie Marusiak mixed it. Mars Booker and Elena Piech wrote and produced the theme music. All other music was provided by Podington Bear, analoc, and Hogan Grip under Creative Commons licenses. We especially want to thank Engaged Cornell and The Sophie Fund for supporting this collaboration and The Park Foundation for supporting the Park Scholars Program and WRFI.

The Loneliness Project will explore more topics related to loneliness and mental health in two weeks — we will take a break on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Listen in on Fridays after WRFI Community Radio news headlines at 6 p.m. Tune in live at 88.1 FM in Ithaca and 91.9 FM in Watkins Glen. Or stream online at wrfi.org.

*This piece first aired on WRFI Community Radio News on Nov. 16. We are proud to say The Loneliness Radio Project won a 2019 first place award for Outstanding Public Affairs Program or Series from the New York State Broadcasters Association.

Episode 2: How does social media impact young people’s mental health?

Featured image credit: rawpixel / Pixabay

The transcript is below. But, if you can, we encourage you to get the full experience with the audio above.

How does social media impact young people’s mental health? To start, we wanted to see how widespread platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook are used at Ithaca College. And, everyone we spoke to? They use these apps: “every day.”

This didn’t come as too much of a surprise. Students use it all the time: while studying, while eating, while having an in-person conversation — even while walking around campus.

One student says, “I like to do these little head studies, just seeing how many people walk around with their head down like a zombie or whatever. Social media is definitely the cause of this. People are just glued to their phones all the time and they walk around with their heads down instead of looking up at the world.”

When we asked these students if social media impacts their mental health, the general answer is the same: “Oh yeah, definitely.”

One individual elaborated: “I do think it has affected my mental health because I have to respond to Snapchat every day. I have streaks so I have to send them out; if I don’t, I’ll lose them. I have a streak that’s 400 days, so if I lose it then I’m going to be very sad.”

We spoke to Anna Gardner, a senior at Ithaca  College.

The summer after her sophomore year of college, she really began to experience the effects of social media on her mental health. After landing an internship in New York City — a destination she was originally excited to explore — Anna became very… lonely.

She remembers, “I moved there and it was like ‘there’s free events going on every day!’ I was going to events at the public library, I was going to museums, I was going to gallery openings… I was like, ‘This is amazing!’ I would post on social media and be like, ‘Check in here!’, ‘Post a photo here!’ but the whole time I was going to all of those things by myself.”

She was taking selfies of herself going to all sorts of events, but she was actually alone at all these fabulous happenings. One day, her sister — who Anna describes as her voice of reason — asked her if she really enjoyed doing all of these things alone.

Anna recalls the conversation: “When she asked me that, I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe I say I like to do things by myself because that’s just how it happens.’ I think this is because of social media, but people also assume that I’m too busy. They think, ‘If I reached out to Anna I’d be such an inconvenience to her.’ I know I have a lot of friends who tell me, ‘I didn’t even think to reach out to you because you just seem like you’re always doing something or you’ll find something to do.’

“But that summer, I had never felt more isolated. The whole time, I felt like I had to project this image on social media that everything is good and I’m having a great time and NYC is so great. It really sucks.”

Anna, like many young people, feels like she has to project this happy, confident persona to her friends online, while  sometimes feeling very different.

Janis Whitlock, the Director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery and an affiliate of the Cornell Social Media lab, has done extensive research on adolescent development and identity formation, particularly in relation to social media. Whitlock says these online platforms can make us lonely for many reasons — one being that people in our generation feel like they need to be on all the time.

“Just having our attention going so many directions and living in such an enormous cauldron of stimulus all the time where the expectation of sort of being ‘on’ or having an image to be maintained and being so exposed all the time is very stressful,” Whitlock explains. “I suspect that probably decreases the sense of connection to everybody and everything, as well as the sense of authenticity and just being comfortable in your skin. This seems like a time in which it’s really hard to be comfortable in your own skin.”

She suspects this digital influence can make this generation lonelier than past ones.

“In some ways this generation of college students are the most lonely people we have ever recorded, in terms of being able to track loneliness in fairly large scale ways. Your friends and family are a click away and on the other hand, everybody feels like they’re so isolated,” Whitlock says.

A 2015 Pew Research study of teens, technology and friendships conducted by youth and technology expert Amanda Lenhart highlights the four primary social-media induced stressors for teens. Among them? Feeling pressure to post positive and attractive content about yourself.

Whitlock says this fixation on the self, inspired by smartphones and online platforms, has a crucial impact on how our generation perceives ourselves and the world around us.

Whitlock remembers, “When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I would look at myself before I went to school, I would brush my hair and stuff but that might be all I really saw unless I was heading out again later that night and I wanted to look good.

“Today, I think there are so many different ways to see oneself that the fixation on the self and the look of the self and making sure that the self appears right to the outside world is beyond comparison and there’s not even a way to talk about it in comparison to an earlier time.

“I wonder sometimes if that creates a separation between a perceived authentic self and a manicured or curated self that I have to continually project, and if the schism between those two things can create a deep sense of not being seen for real or not being accepted for real.”

However, she also says the internet is a great resource for those struggling with mental health. There are so many internet forums that give those facing emotional challenges a place to voice their experiences.

“In general, I would say people that struggle with loneliness or mental health are seeking support online in higher rates than others and they’re finding it, to some degree. So that’s positive. It’s easier and faster to to find other people to talk to who might share similar life experiences or challenges that can make someone feel very alone, like sexual identity or orientation or other aspects of identity that can feel very marginalizing otherwise,” Whitlock says.

While Whitlock has a lot of observations about technology’s influence on young people’s mental health, in truth, it’s really hard to measure.

“Frankly, in order to be able to tease out the really complex relationship between exactly what people are doing online and the later mood states that happen, whether they’re happening in that time, right after that time, or in the next week, two weeks, three months, six months, years — it’s going to require really detailed studies. And we just don’t have that yet,” she concedes.

Earlier in the semester, Dr. Jean Twenge visited Ithaca College to speak about her latest book titled: iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

Throughout the widely-attended talk, Twenge spoke extensively about the negative effects of social media and smartphone use on Generation Z: the generation of many of today’s college students. While many Ithaca College students attended this talk to learn about how smartphones affect their own generation, the audience seemed a little… distracted. Why? Because they couldn’t remove themselves from — you guessed it — their phones.

While Twenge and Whitlock — among many others — study social media’s impact on youth, in the end, we could not find a lot of practical guidance from them. The technology is moving too fast, and social media, right now, is too addictive.

So, the best thing we felt we could do is find some wisdom from how college students themselves are handling mental health in relation to social media.

We spoke with Ithaca College Junior Kristen Butler, a co-founder of Ithaca Ambassadors and a board member of Ithaca College’s chapter of Active Minds. Both of these organizations aim to connect students with mental health resources and create healthy conversation surrounding mental health and mental illness.

As someone who struggles with mental health, Kristen has a lot to say about the impacts of social media. Her relationship with social media largely reflects what Whitlock found in her research: Kristen benefits from online communities, but also recognizes how social media negatively impacts self-perception.

Kristen recalls her own experiences: “Personally, when I was feeling isolated in high school I would go online and I would talk to people and I would help people through their problems and they would help me through my problems that was a really important experience because they were strangers but they knew stuff about me that other people didn’t know who were closer to me, because I was concerned about their opinions. So in that regard it’s a really great resource.

“But it also can be your worst enemy when it comes to mental health,” she cautions. “Especially when it comes to social media. Regarding Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat, I think Instagram is the biggest problem we have because of the likes and the followers that people obsess over, as well as thinking they need to create an appearance of themselves and define themselves online.”

Kristen says one of the main ways we can deal with the negative effects of social media is to start having in-person conversations about mental health. This is what Active Minds does. She says these spaces really help college students, especially freshmen, come to terms with how mental health affects them.

“You know, they kept talking about how they were afraid to tell their parents about what they were going through. They thought they would judge them and love them less and a lot of the times the conversation ended in… you know, but then they just said, ‘They were really there for me and they were there to support me.’ Those people who were talking about that, I saw a light go off in other people’s eyes,” she remembers.

Of course, it’s not only Ithaca College students who feel like they have to put up a front of ‘being perfect’, or ‘being okay’. We spoke with Jared Fenton, the founder and president of The Reflect Organization: a national wellness nonprofit that works to catalyze movements on college campuses towards allyship, authenticity and self-love.

When Fenton was a student at The University of Pennsylvania, he was introduced to the term “Penn Face”: a phrase used widely around campus to describe students’ desire to put up a front of perfection.

Fenton explains, “It’s essentially a mask that says everything’s good, but not even just good. Everything’s perfect. I’m getting straight A’s in all my classes, I have the most friends and I go to the most parties. But I never get tired because people don’t get tired and I just go and do it again and again and again.”

He started conducting research on “Penn Face” and its impact on the mental health of students at his university. Through his analysis, he found a pattern. Penn Face wasn’t only happening at the University of Pennsylvania. The idea of “Penn Face” was a national phenomenon.

“I found out at Columbia University, they call it ‘Columbia face,’ and at Stanford, all the way in California, they call it ‘duck syndrome,’” he says.

And it isn’t just national. After Fenton began his research, the University of Essex in the United Kingdom reached out to him and said that they, too, experience a variant of “Penn Face”.

So, how is this ‘mask’ magnified by the use of social media?

“I think social media plays a big role in this,” he ruminates. “I often talk about how Facebook originally had your homepage being called your wall. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but at the same time it’s very interesting. Because that’s what people on social media are doing. They’re putting up a wall. They’re saying, ‘Everything’s perfect on my Instagram.’ But, in real life, everything’s tumultuous.”

According to Fenton, groups like Active Minds have the right idea. He says starting in-person conversations around mental health is the greatest way to overcome the negative effects of social media.

“We believe that students are the ones who change campus culture, so if we can have programs that are specifically aimed at empowering students to go about creating this cultural shift, then we can ultimately forge a college environment where students are allies to each other, they are self loving and they do authentically connect,” Fenton predicts.

But what does it mean to authentically connect? Well, Fenton says it means creating interpersonal connections without the interference of social media or ‘masks of perfection.’ Put simply, it’s students talking to each other honestly about who they really are.

According to Fenton, one big reason this generation feels so isolated is the less real you are, the harder it is to create intimate bonds with others — and the more likely you will be lonely. Even if you have hundreds of likes on Instagram, this does not translate to having lots of friends in real life.  

The Reflect chapter at Cornell, for example, facilitates these kinds of honest conversations using an easy motivator: pizza. Then, lots of students come for the food and once they’re there, they start to open up to each other.

But, there may be a simpler solution, for those who can: get off social media. That’s what Ithaca College sophomore Nic Wands recommends.

When all of his classmates began creating online accounts in middle school, Nic was simply… disinterested. Nic still stands by his decision. Why? For the exact reasons Fenton says our generation is so isolated.

“The currency of social media is likes and followers, and people will do anything to get likes and followers even if it’s not true to themselves. I would say I’m more honest and less fake than my friends with social media,” Nic assesses.

Over 98% of college-aged students use social media, leaving less than 2% who don’t. So, we ask Nic — is it harder for him to make friends, or connect with people, than his peers? His response?

He laughs: “Why would you need social media to make friends? I feel like a lot of people when you have social media you have like a million friends — who aren’t necessarily all really your friends. A friend on Facebook isn’t really a friend.”

While he misses out on some things — like last minute events or the latest memes — Nic’s social life isn’t inhibited at all by his lack of online presence. In fact, he says it’s quite the opposite. When he’s at a party, or a concert, or out with friends — he’s not documenting for Snapchat or Instagram. He’s just… there. And, ultimately? He feels like it’s a lot easier to be real.

For WRFI, I’m Bronte Cook.

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This is the second episode of the Loneliness Project, an audio series by the Park Scholars Program at Ithaca College, in collaboration with WRFI. This episode was produced by Bronte Cook, Maia Noah and myself, Julianne Grillo. Laura Rosbrow Telem, the news director at WRFI, editorially supervised this episode, and Jackie Marusiak mixed it. Mars Booker and Elena Piech wrote and produced the theme music. Special thanks to Engaged Cornell and the Sophie Fund for supporting this collaboration, and the Park Foundation for supporting the Park Scholars Program and WRFI.

The Loneliness Project will explore more topics related to loneliness and mental health in two weeks — we will take a break next Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Listen in on Fridays after WRFI Community Radio news headlines at 6 p.m. Tune in live at 88.1 FM in Ithaca and 91.9 FM in Watkins Glen. Or stream online at wrfi.org.