Part II – Social Media as a threat to teenagers?

In the previous post, Boris Chapoton briefly discussed the origins of social media and its use. Social media has grown considerably since the Internet was created and it has been stated that its social nature is not only attractive to teenagers who are in a period of their life in which social bonding is crucial to construct their identity, but also that it was attractive to SM companies which generate money from providing access to the data generated by the users to other companies.

The current post focuses specifically on teenagers and the “dangers” associated with SM when it comes to being connected to other individuals. In addition, we discuss the dangers associated with SM use when economic purposes are ongoing.

SM’s dangers associated to individuals[1]

When we use the term social, we talk about multiple individuals and about interaction. Ease of access for teenagers to SM has exposed them to some dangers that they may not have otherwise been come into contact with. For example; 

  • Outside their immediate circle of friends – some individuals have developed complex strategies to gain trust, to access personal information, and to take advantage of other people (e.g.: the creation of fake profiles). 
  • Peers – teenagers could be harmful towards each other (e.g. forwarding private pictures) and bullying at school can be now transposed online, giving (hypothetically) no rest for the teen to “breathe” and be able to construct a positive identity;
  • The individual themselves – posting and sharing information on SM could be associated with expectations that could be hard to reach when comparing oneself to others. Subsequently, their sense of reality could be impaired from the content they view, and maladaptive behaviours could develop (e.g. eating disorders, substance misuse).  

However, more than these more or less known dangers that could be associated to SM use, some other “tricky dangers” have to be taken into consideration. 

Teenagers within the economic side of SM

As previously stated within the 1stpost, private companies are looking at specific data from the users in order to target them specifically to sell their product. We can easily understand the importance of these data; the more a brand can get closer to its audience, the more the audience will associate itself to the brand and will spread its use through its SM, advertising the product towards their peers (see figure I). The commercial impact associated with such relations is more powerful than a simple advertisement on a billboard: people are more willing to rely on the advice and experience of any other individual rather than believing a marketing campaign

Figure 1. Communication Channel and viral marketing within the social media

Regarding teenagers, youth have been targeted as a powerful source of potential buyers and its economic impact is major for some companies[2]. When you associate to this fact to the desirable effect of belonging for teenagers that we mentioned within the previous post, SM could be a great opportunity for companies to communicate about their product and to potentially increase the number of buyers: 

A company wants to sell its product to teenagers. It associates its use to friendship and popularity. Teenagers believe that this product will help them to reach both of these. As such, they share a post on their SM associating a part of their life with the product being used. Their contacts positively react to such a post, and the more reactions their contacts and them get to see in relation to the post, the more impact its content will have and potentially make the contacts to buy the product “advertised”. 

As such, while “surfing” on their SM, being entertained and enjoying posts and stories from their contacts or desirable figures’ (e.g. Celebrity), teenagers could be influenced by the content of the messages posted within the SM, so is the case with product placement within classical media (TV program, video clips, etc.)[3].  

Connecting the dots – the example of Snapchat

We said that economy has integrated the SM world. SM are not only website or applications that help you to get in contact with someone else, they are also companies that generate money and have to be competitive to do so. They get to know what makes one use their media and stay on it, so they can sell advertisement opportunities to companies.

If we take the example of Snapchat, this application is used on a daily basis by more than 158 million people, predominantly young people. Snapchat is answering to both teenagers’ and companies’ expectations.

In order to make teenagers use the application, Snapchat underlines the values of friendship and belonging sought by teenagers. To underline such relationships, meaningful emoji have been created to appear next to one’s contact pseudo. The emoji could take the form of different smileys, more or less “positive”:

As for example, if you have a “face with sunglasses” next to the pseudo of a contact, it means that you are the one that sends the most snap to the person and vice-versa; however, if it is a “grimacing face” that you have, it means that your best snapchat friend has someone else other than you as a best snapchat friends. 

In order to make sure that people would use the application to generate data and to be able to grant companies access to teenagers, Snapchat has developed different interactive and funny gimmicks that are constantly renewed. They take the form of filters that could be associated to the photos taken (e.g. dog ears and tongue integrated to the face that appears on the picture) or the form of trophies to obtain depending on the use people have of the application (if you verify your phone number you have the phone trophy, if you send a snap between 4am and 5am, you have the fried egg trophy). But not only is Snapchat using these attractive gimmicks that could be sponsored by some companies’ brand, it also uses the friendship value to make people to use the application again and again, which could be more questionable:

People have the possibility to generate a fire/flame with their contacts. To do so, they have to send each other a snap for at least 3 days in a row, and they have to keep sending each other one snap minimum every 24 hours otherwise the flame would disappear and the number cumulated.The more often people communicate through snaps, the higher the number associated to the flame will be. This will demonstrate the strong relationship people have between each other. If you manage to snap back and forth for 100 days in a row with one of your contacts, the number “hundred” appears next to the flame. 

At a time where friendship is important and insecurity could emerge easily, some teenagers could take the loss of a number or the lack of reciprocity within the intensity to which snaps are sent very personally… 

Then, are SM scary? 

The unknown could be scary, and here is perhaps the problem; we do not know what exactly happens on SM when someone is connected to THE WORLD. But we could say that the world is scary as well. Thinking about it, what more could happen to teenagers on SM than in “reality”? If you talk to people over the age of 25 about their teenage years you could ask if they were facing a different risk than the current generation? Wasn’t there a generation that were warned about the danger of listening to rock’n’roll music, to Elvis or to the Beatles? Wasn’t there a generation that could have faced the risk of losing their mental capacity if they were watching Reality shows? 

We talk about the millennium generation, the digital one and so on. New generations are born with new technologies and get to learn about their use perhaps faster than the oldest (if not for sure). When talking with teenagers about the risk they could be facing on SM, they are not as naïve as one could think. Some would “recite” what they have been taught about the internet dangers, some would talk about problems they or friends have faced and how they have handle them with the help of friends or trusted relatives. However, what should be questioned is the extortion of friendship as a way of making money, especially for teenagers which rely on it to build their self-esteem. 

It is important to keep monitoring what is going on social networks sites and reveal manipulative strategies that people could not know about, the obvious and non-obvious ones (see example below). As you make sure a child knows to look left/right/left[4]before crossing a road or how to come back to the house. Rather than forbidding youth to embrace new habits and possibilities, we should make sure that they feel confident enough to share any problem they are confronted with and give them the capacity to overcome them. However, we shouldn’t put aside the amazing opportunities that the Internet could provide. As mentioned at the start: discovering others, not being alone, sociability, counting on each other and learning from them.

Two different types of danger that could be found on SM. Is one more obvious than the other?

[1]Among others

[2]La Ferle, C., Li, H., Edwards, S.M. (2001) An overview of teenagers and television advertising in the United States. International Communication Gazette, 63(1): 7-24 https://doi.org/10.1177/0016549201063001002

[3]Russell, C.A.; Régnier Denois, V., Chapoton, B., Buhrau, D. (2017) Impact of Substance Messages in Music Videos on Youth: Beware the Influence of Connectedness and Its Potential Prevention-Shielding Effect. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 78(5): 674-683. DOI: 10.15288/jsad.2017.78.674

[4]Right/left/right depending on your country