Reading Time: 17 minutes

Abstract

Social media is an integral part of life. In addition to allowing us to stay connected with others, watch videos, or play games, social media can also allow teenagers to escape reality, such as oppression, while parents need to understand this “addiction” to social media. This oppression among peers is noticeable with homophily. Turning to social media allows teenagers to connect with others with similar interests. But parents often blame technology for an undesirable outcome without realizing the social and personal factors at play. To help teenagers escape this unjust treatment, parents should not blame social media, which provides help for teenagers. But instead, can empower and interact with the acts of deprivation to create an intervention. In this essay, I will use an autoethnographic approach to examine the idea that social media is used to escape reality among teenagers and parents who don’t understand social media. Autoethnography will allow me to research and write about my personal experiences and observe others to understand the cultural experiences of teenagers (Ellis et al., 2014, para. 1). To go into more detail, I will include the screen time of three teenagers and me (four in total) for three days with interviews to determine the amount of time spent on social media as a coping mechanism.

Introduction:

This past rainy Saturday afternoon in November, I stepped into my room after a long day of school and had this urge to relax. I unlocked my phone and turned the brightness down. Knowing that I have assignments waiting for me puts me in a high-stress mood, and I must get it done before I can relax. So, I put the phone away and spent a good 5 hours looking at the screen with no breaks in between, making me physically and mentally exhausted. But being the person I am, I like to be ahead in my classes to feel caught up. I first noticed how quiet my house was for once. I hadn’t heard one thing other than me typing on the computer. My room was so quiet and peaceful, and it felt relaxing. This environment made me more motivated to get my assignments done. Now it was 6:00 pm, and I finally got up and flopped face-down onto my sheets and felt so exhausted. This moment was when I wanted to forget about all this built-up stress, so I got on my phone. I played some online games like 8 Ball Pool with some friends and went on social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram to see what was occurring while I remained indulged in my homework. Clicking through different messages and interacting with my friends led me to a loophole, and I didn’t realize how fast the time flew by. Looking back, I could tell how social media allowed me to escape the stress related to classwork with just a few apps. I found myself in my bubble with those who relate and build connections with me, and it is different for everyone. Figure 1 is a screen capture from my phone on Saturday, and one can tell the top three apps are 8 Ball Pool, Instagram, and Snapchat. Those were my apps used right after finishing my schoolwork. Looking at Sunday and Monday, the most noticeable apps are also Snapchat and Instagram. These apps allow me to talk to my friends and connect between homework and classes to feel a sensation of being lifted from my academic worries. Since the stress of homework and school, my screen time has decreased, and the way to forget about these worries, I often partake in social and game categories seen below.

Figures 1-3:  Screenshot of Screen time for me (Binal) (November 6-8th)

Addiction to social media:

The word addiction is usually seen in terms of alcohol or drugs, but never with social media. In this article, Addiction to Social Media and Attachment Styles: A Systematic Literature Review, Maria Chiara D’Arienzo, Valentina Boursier, and Mark D. Griffiths, who are in the humanities and psychology departments at selected universities, define addiction. As stated in the article, “Compared to other traditional forms of addiction, the internet is not a substance and has therefore been conceptualized as behavioral addiction (Griffith 2005). Its consumption when excessive may result in negative outcomes and become addictive (Griffith et al. 2016) especially among a minority of adolescents and young adults (World Health Organization 2011)” (D’Arienzo et al., 2019, para. 3). In other words, excessive use of social media can be harmful, and there is behavioral addiction behind these actions. Based on behavioral addiction, they identify three personality traits: extraversion, shyness, and self-esteem. Extraversion is when extraverts need high levels of stimulation, which social media provides for them. Likewise, they found undergraduate students who are overly shy prefer spending time online to offline. They also assert, “Online interactions can be very appealing for those individuals with social anxiety (Boute et al. 2009) and depression symptoms (Andreassen et al., 2016)” (D’Arienzo et al., 2019, para. 4). To better understand this, even though parents and adults label technology like social media as an addiction, it may also be helpful to those seeking social interaction in cases such as depression or social anxiety. Any individual, in their way, wants to escape reality and connect with others online.

One example is when, back in 2016, my parents and I packed food for those in need at a facility as a community service project. Our weekly activity involved pairing up to work on different stations every Saturday. There are the packing station, the taping station, and the people who put the food in the bags. I was a shy person and found it hard to talk to others, so I went on Snapchat to avoid confrontation. Seeing me using my phone, my parents specifically told me that I am addicted to my phone when I am supposed to be doing something productive, like packing food. They failed to realize that I was trying to break through this anxiety moment by distracting myself. This moment specifically showed how the use of social media will always be labeled as an addiction, even if the time was used to connect online by a shy person who wanted to escape the situation at hand. This fails not only to realize that using your device in specific circumstances isn’t always an addiction but also fails to see the perspective through my eyes of escaping anxiety. To back up this idea, in her book, It’s Complicated, a technology and social media scholar, boyd initiates, “Anyone who engages in a practice in ways that society sees as putting more socially acceptable aspects of their lives in jeopardy are seen as addicted” (p. 83). I agree that using technology can lead to addiction, but that is a point that needs to be stressed as so many people still attribute teenagers’ use of social media as the leading factor for them to be addicted.

Earlier this fall, my friends and I split up. All seven of us attend different universities, so we have various group chats to stay in touch. For example, we have group chats on Snapchat and Instagram. Snapchat is mostly us sharing about our days and funny videos happening in our friend’s dorm rooms. In our Instagram group chat, we share funny memes or posts that relate to us in some way. Outsiders would say that I am constantly on my phone and checking my messages whilst being addicted. As for me, I try to stay up to date with what’s happening with my friends and stay informed about the latest news. In trying to forget that we are all so far apart, I am constantly texting, and socializing makes me feel involved. The countless FaceTime calls make me feel like I am present with them, and when it’s over, I come back to reality. Talking about escaping reality, my interviewee, Alaya Jean, experienced a situation in that realm.

In an interview with my friend, who in this example will be called Alaya Jean, 19, spoke about Saturday, when she felt addicted to social media due to her anxiety. She described that as she sat on her desk, she felt distracted and couldn’t concentrate on the homework on her monitor. Moments later, she grabbed her phone and promised herself to only go on it for a brief 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes turned into 30 and to an hour to 2 hours. In figure 4, you can see her average screen time was about 8 hours, and the top three apps were TikTokInstagram, and 8 Ball Pool. She stated that during those 2 hours, she forgot about the bright monitor in front of her and slivered away into her phone. TikTok was her method of relieving some of those nerves. She mentioned that she wanted to forget about ongoing family problems, and to do so, Alaya distracted herself with TikTok, where she scrolled through various short clip videos and laughed at some. She then describes her usage of Instagram to see what was occurring among her friends through stories and posts but didn’t directly interact with her friends. At the end of her period of escapism, she eventually felt stable and was prepared to start her homework (Jean, Alaya). Alaya explained how she uses technology to stay connected with friends to experience what is happening at the moment. But also, she is escaping her anxiety by being online than offline, as stated before, and is a coping method to escape her current anxiousness. Social media apps can provide that quick distraction many are looking for, which is beneficial right before they can resume what was left off, such as homework, as seen with Alaya.  Instead of labeling the use of social media as addiction, it is pertinent to look at the reason behind the amount of time spent on social media. Apps such as Instagram are used by many, including Alaya, to avoid issues that are preventing them from focusing on the task at hand. In addition to improving, one’s mood, social media can also allow one to concentrate back on the work one is currently doing. The fact, she sent screen time for Sunday and Monday shows her relentless use of apps like TikTok and Instagram, so one might regard this as her way of relieving stress, forgetting about family matters, and connecting with those online. Alaya seems to have consistent hours of screen time, with most of her time spent in the social and gaming categories.

  

Figures 4-6: Screenshot of Screen time for Alaya (November 6-8th)

Homophily:

Social media can be the only spot for some to connect with others who face unjust actions. The unjust actions are acts of oppression that ultimately lead to homophily. To get a definition of homophily, the article, The Allure of Homophily in Social Media: Evidence from Investor Responses on Virtual Communities, initiate the allure of homophily, “Which refers to the propensity to seek interactions with others of similar status (e.g., religion, education, income, occupation) or values (e.g., attitudes, beliefs, and aspirations)” (Gu et al., 2014, para. 1). The authors suggest that homophily may involve seeking comfort with peers with similar backgrounds, beliefs, statuses, etc. I know that attending school results in many different circles of people. Since I am ethnically and religiously diverse, I often hang out with people who share my views. This connection among similar people isn’t anything new, as research in psychology has elaborated on how people are motivated to build connections and keep them. After all, humans are social animals. Humans want to know what others feel about them and crave belonging. Not only this, but the peers that are spreading this homophily, to begin with, are unaware of their influences. They get this input from others to keep spreading negatively (Gu et al., 2014, para. 23). This study further shares my ideas on social media being an escape route for those who experience homophily. They can go on virtual communities or different platforms to build connections and share this bond of similar thoughts. But also, in, It’s Complicated, boyd (2014) discusses the idea of homophily. For example, she states, “For teens who are facing cultural oppression and inequality, connecting along lines of race and ethnicity can help teens feel a sense of belonging, enhance identity development, and help them navigate systematic racism” (p. 166). This act shows the lack of relationships among different racial groups and shares how someone’s views shape what they observe in social settings that unknowingly lead to isolation among different peers. Therefore, it embeds the acts of homophily that share how ethnic groups flock together. Looking back, it was during my freshman year of high school where I felt lost. I remember having my best friend since 6th grade with me as we stepped foot into high school. Our first sight of high school was sighting groups among our peers. I remember seeing different groups of people talking about gaming, people with the same ethnic background as Latinos, and some had groups since middle school. Anita and I, who were new in this high school, felt isolated and I could see the fear in her eyes too when we didn’t know whom to talk with. We found an area in the hallway to stand in, and just in our luck, we had no classes together. I remember being quiet in all my classes and scared to interact with others since they were all in their groups. Instead of socializing with my classmates, I would use social media to distract myself. This situation further promotes those teenagers like myself aren’t willingly trying to stay in herds, but with this built-in inequality, they feel this sense of comfort when grouped with like-minded peers such as those seen in the hallways and between Anita and me.

A friend of mine, who in this example will be called Rin Key, 18, was interviewed to find out if she had any recent experiences with acts of homophily. Without hesitation, she told me a story that happened this year. She started school this September to become a dental hygienist. One day in her science class, which was prominently white, everyone was hurdled around in groups when told to work on a group project. She saw a group of five who were all pursuing a business degree, all hurdled up, three people who seemed like friends, and others seemed to be chatting with one another. People looked at her but didn’t take the initiative to talk to her or make contact. While the rest of the students shuffled about the room, she found herself alone in the right corner. She explained, she ended up working by herself for the remainder of the class time and went on Instagram to talk to friends about this whole experience. During the class time where she conversed online with her friends, seeing her friends understanding her situation made her feel happy and couldn’t help but feel less sacred, and she didn’t take the whole matter into her heart (Key, Rin). Like myself, when there were issues with the feeling of oppression, she used her phone and social media apps to get her mind off things and transport herself out of the situation. It is important to understand that at times of feeling isolated, social media is a way to escape the unjust behavior and connect with those on social media apps to understand and analyze the situation at hand with friends and peers online. Currently, Rin has made a couple of friends who understand her goals and ambitions and feel a sense of belonging. Comprehending similar circumstances of her friends and peers has allowed her to be less nervous, which ultimately helped her make friends.

Now looking at the time she spent on her phone as her coping method, in figure 7, I captured her recent screen time of Saturday, she explains how she spends most of her time driving to school and socializing with her friends, but since Rin can see her friends at school for most of the day, Rin stays off her phone more to connect in person while she has that time. While also looking at figures 8 and 9, one can assume she spends most of her time on apps like Instagram and YouTube to avoid the confrontation she has in moments in social settings stated above. The screen time seems to stay consistent, and her use of time is less while she can engage with her friends in public. While trying to stay connected with her friends, she also uses most of her screen time using the direction of Waze for navigation. In the social area, she has a regular tendency of reaching out to her friends via Instagram.

 

Figure 7-9: Screenshot of Screen time for Rin (November 6-8th)

Parent’s lack of understanding of social media:

Parents often have a negative outlook on the use of technology and social media used by teenagers. Many parents assume teenagers are glued to their phones and that social media is making personal problems worse without understanding that it is a coping mechanism for some of us. Once again, the founder of data and society research, boyd, herself, writes, “Developing meaningful friendships is a key component of the coming of age process. Friends offer many things-advice, support, entertainment, and a connection that combats loneliness” (boyd, 2014, p. 17). In other words, boyd demonstrates that connecting with friends is a natural process where friends provide support, advice, and connections. It is imperative to understand that social media is not only a source of entertainment. It is also a way to express feelings and problems to those who share the same thoughts. Instead, to develop an intervention, parents should empower and interact with the actions of deprivation. In an interview I did with my friend, who, in this example, will be named Aki Bell, 18, I saw this in action. As a child of immigrant parents, he told me that social media is seen as bad and will expose him to the wrong things. In early 2021, he was going through a rough time dealing with personal issues that were related to his health. During this time, he felt immense pressure on his head from his stress, which made him fall into a depressive state where he couldn’t get out of bed for 2 weeks. He told me that he didn’t touch his phone once in those two weeks, and to change his repetitive pattern of lying-in bed in the dark, gloomy room, he wanted to reach out to his friends. As a result, he sought out Snapchat, where his friends had a group chat and frequently shared funny posts and memes from various meme accounts his friends follow on social media. Aki noted that connecting with his friends and having them help him out provided him with moral support, allowing him to forget about his reality of feeling weak and not having to shoulder all the weight alone. But his parents thought this was pointless, and the use of social media is making his problems severe. He recalls his parents having a displeased or angry expression on their faces, with wrinkled brows (Bell, Aki). I could relate to Aki’s parents not understanding social media. I knew my parents didn’t want me to be on social media or have exposure to dangers such as people hiding their age and manipulating me because of my age. But after enough pleading, I got my first phone at the start of 7th grade, and since I didn’t have social media at the time, I communicated through I-message. I excitedly acquired my friend’s numbers and texted them. But my parents would look over my shoulder and occasionally say, “Who is that?” or “Let me see what you guys are talking about.” This exertion didn’t allow me to keep my conversation private. Especially at times when I would want to ask for advice or have a conversation without my parents listening. Parents should understand that technology and social media apps are both skill-building and emotional support tools for their children as they grow as people. Seeing this with Aki and me, it is imperative that social media isn’t an option parents often see as a coping mechanism because it is an unfamiliar site to them. Instead, parents should communicate with their teenagers about the need to remain connected through social media and the rewards that come with it. Furthermore, in figure 10, Aki shares his screen time with me for Saturday. It is important to note that for teenagers like Aki who are going through personal problems, the only way to get help or clear the mind in such scenarios is through social media apps, as seen with his 1 hour to 2-hour uses of Snapchat regularly. You can see from his screen time images below, most of Aki’s time is spent in the social category, indicating it is essential for teenagers to socialize and voice personal problems to others who will listen. Those who will listen are their friends and peers online and for Aki, that is his Snapchat group chat. It is vital to building those emotional bonds even if their parents are unaware of their importance. He further explains how he is still actively engaging on social media sites like Snapchat and Facebook to connect with friends and family to develop meaningful relationships to be in a better mindset. But Prime Video allows him to find peace by watching shows and movies. Though he knows his parents don’t fully understand, he wants a place where he can forget about his worries for a while. In figures 11 and 12, it’s clear that he spends his screen time socializing and entertained on platforms like Snapchat and Prime Video, which is seen as a continuous pattern for Aki.

Figure 10-12: Screenshot of Screen time for Aki (November 6-8th)

Parent’s view of social media:

Teenagers often view their parents as the main obstacle to their use of social media. However, they do not consider why parents have this so-called negative mindset. The scholar boyd (2014) discusses a time in 2010 when you could access Formspring, which was designed for professionals but later became popular among high school students. Teenagers on Facebook could access Formspring and write questions anonymously, which was the purpose of this app. The questions and answers to those questions would appear on a person’s profile. Some of the questions were harmless, and some were harmful, such as labeling others inappropriately. After some time, “This outraged parents, educators, and journalists alike. Many argued that Formspring should be banned because it was a source of anonymous cruelty” (boyd, 2014, p. 141). In other words, what boyd is initiating in this conversation is the parent’s interaction with cruelty. Teenagers, like myself, are often left wondering why parents care as they fail to understand the premise of social media. Teenagers don’t realize that there will always be an ingrained fear among parents about social media. Parents often want the best for their kids while also wanting them to have a safe environment online. Knowing parents don’t understand the key benefits of social media, such as interacting among friends, they often fear that these interactions will have a negative outcome, such as bullying. I have an example from middle school. In 8th grade, I vividly remember this day when my friends and I were sitting in the cafeteria during lunch, and suddenly we saw the counselor coming towards the front. As he approached the front of the room, the silence fell, and all you hear is his footsteps. As he started speaking, he had an aching voice, as if it was bad news, and it was. We discovered a member of our class was cyberbullied on Snapchat. People would make hurtful comments on her appearances while posting their stories for everyone to see. The counselor told us about the awareness of bullying and how to prevent it and closed off the speech. He then had an announcement especially designated by the classmate’s mom. Her message told us that our classmate would be homeschooled because of bullying and that everyone should stand up for the oppressed. Looking back at this story, I can see why parents often fear social media. There are vast online platforms, and parents don’t know how each works, and with this, their fear grows. With all this considered, social media isn’t always danger-free, and parents fear that teenagers are taking this matter lightly. But to dismiss these fears, teenagers and parents need to talk among themselves to dissolve these obstacles and build a connection for fear-free interactions online. If the counselor had made the topic of bullying more relevant throughout the years, a difference could have been made in 8th grade. This talk would have provided students with more information on the subject, as well as parents and teachers with the opportunity to experience the benefits of social media during acts such as bullying, where teenagers could support one another. These acts are the main reason why parents should consider that social media is also a platform that allows teenagers to talk about situations like bullying.

Conclusion:

Even though social media is overwhelming, the proposal that it has a negative influence is not adequately substantiated. Social media is seen as a negative attribute among parents who think social media makes teenagers’ problems worse with manipulators online. But what needs to be realized is that their ways it can help teenagers who are experiencing discomfort in life and need a coping mechanism. Social media can indeed be degrading and insensitive at times, but with proper education and a talk with parents, social media can be advantageous. Homophilic teenagers, who can’t express their oppression in person, prefer to connect with other peers online, where they are protected from being bullied and feel secure. While this may seem like an addiction to outsiders, it is a natural process of human nature to stay connected and be attentive to the world around them. Through social media apps such as Snapchat, Instagram, and others, teenagers can escape the reality they don’t want to deal with right now and experience a more positive reality. By keeping a positive outlook on social media, there can be tremendous growth in the benefits of social media via coping methods, connections, and safe environments to counteract the deep-rooted fear of social media causing bad habits such as addiction.

References:

Boyd, Danah. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale University Press, 2014.

D’Arienzo, Maria Chiara, et al. “Addiction to Social Media and Attachment Styles: A Systematic Literature Review.” International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, Springer US, 18 Apr. 2019, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11469-019-00082-5#citeas.

Ellis, Carolyn, et al. “View of Autoethnography: An Overview: Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research.” View of Autoethnography: An Overview | Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, Jan. 2011, https://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095.

Gu, Bin, et al. “Research Note-the Allure of Homophily in Social Media: Evidence from Investor Responses on Virtual Communities.” Information Systems Research, 25 Sept. 2014, https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/isre.2014.0531.

Boyd, Danah. It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale University Press, 2014. D’Arienzo, Maria Chiara, et al. “Addiction to Social Media and Attachment Styles: A Systematic Literature Review.” International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, Springer US, 18 Apr. 2019, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11469-019-00082-5#citeas. Ellis, Carolyn, et al. “View of Autoethnography: An Overview: Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research.” View of Autoethnography: An Overview | Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, Jan. 2011, https://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095. Gu, Bin, et al. “Research Note-the Allure of Homophily in Social Media: Evidence from Investor Responses on Virtual Communities.” Information Systems Research, 25 Sept. 2014, https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/isre.2014.0531.