Written By Aakanksha Yelishala
Class XI student at Manthan School, Hyderabad, India
In today’s world, social media has become an integral part of adolescents’ lives. Statistical reports confirm that in the USA, adolescents have the highest level of internet/social media usage amongst all age groups. 92% of adolescents are active on the internet daily, and on average, they are active on at least four different social media platforms. 95% of American teenagers have access to smartphones, and 45% of adolescents report being online frequently, according to a 2018 study by the PEW Research Center. It is worth noting that while 31% of the teenagers felt that social media mostly has a positive impact on their age group and 24% of them felt that social media’s impact is negative, the majority (45%) of adolescents felt that it was irrelevant because it has had neither positive nor negative effects.
However, given the rising trends in the use of social media, I felt intrigued to dig deeper. This article summarizes my observations along with literature reviews on how social media platforms impact today’s youth. Dealing with peer pressure is among the most prominent issues that adolescents face. Peer pressure can be defined as feeling the need to act, look, think or behave in a certain way to receive appreciation, validation and a sense of being accepted by friends, family and peers.
How does social media aggravate peer pressure?
In a survey conducted by the PEW Research Center (USA), some teenagers expressed that social media most likely harms their age group owing to an unrealistic view of others’ lives. In modern times, social media offers a platform where people might make irrational assessments of others’ lives based on a few snapshots and reels, leading to unmindful comparisons and unrealistic expectations, creating insecurities and increased mental health issues. The mental health of teenagers is the worst affected, with symptoms of social anxiety, depression, loneliness, and a sense of inadequacy.
Social networks could make young people vulnerable to making risky decisions or choices, which include but are not limited to drugs, alcohol, risky sexual behaviour, and violence. Studies by Brown et al. (2008) explained this process in two steps – the first comprises a phenomenon known as “behavioural display”, which suggests that individuals mimic their peers’ behaviours to be socially desirable. The study identified this as a social-desirability bias, wherein respondents to the survey tend to provide socially acceptable answers. This bias can be extended to social media as well. In the study by Sherman et al., (2016), the number of “likes” received on posts was used as a “Quantifiable Social Endorsement”. Essentially for users, “likes” are a numerically measurable indicator of how their peers are receiving various posts, and therefore, “likes” can also be seen as their indicator of socially desirable behaviours.
The second step described in the study by Brown et al. (2008) is “behavioural reinforcement”. Social media is a platform where adolescents can immediately receive feedback on their activities and posts. As a result, socially desirable behaviour, regardless of the level of risk, is likely to be adopted and continued by teenagers through a chain of positive feedback on their posts and social media presence.
Both of these phenomena significantly pressurize adolescents to conform to their peers’ behaviours in an attempt to be accepted and appreciated.
How does social media influence teenagers’ brains and behaviour?
Sherman’s study (2016) reported that the chances of adolescents “liking” a certain post was much higher if it had a greater number of likes by peers, regardless of how risky the behaviour in the post was. Neuroimaging studies detected heightened brain activity when viewing more “liked” photographs, an indicator that the participants viewed popular posts with greater attentiveness than less popular posts. Significantly heightened activation of the brain areas was also observed when viewing their own images/posts with more “likes”, relative to when viewing posts from other people, a depiction of behavioural reinforcement. Sherman’s study also demonstrated that the adolescents’ brains showed dulled activity when they saw social media images/posts which depicted risky behaviours and were popular (received a lot of “likes”). This suggests that teenagers are more likely to view such risky behaviours as pleasure-deriving activities, and thereby themselves partake in those activities.
A recent study (Arain et al., 2013) also reported that in teenagers, certain critical regions in the prefrontal cortex, a brain area involved in decision-making processes, are not yet fully developed, thus increasing their likelihood of participating in pleasure-seeking, risky behaviours relative to adults.
Do we fear FOMO on social media?
Peer pressure has always been a common stressor for adolescents, but has been exacerbated by the emergence of social media. Some experts say that one of the key factors differentiating peer pressure on social media from peer pressure in real life is “permanence” (“Role of Social Media in Peer Pressure among Teens.” Secureteen.com). Since every action on social media leaves a strong digital footprint, any hate or rejection received by adolescents from their peers on social media is permanent. It’s difficult for teenagers to leave their past behind for the fear that they will be judged throughout their lives. This in turn can pressurize them to conform to their peer group. Beyond this, social media also normalizes risky behaviour. Through social media platforms, adolescents are exposed to behaviours like drug usage on a much more regular basis than in the past. Consistently interacting with disturbing and provocative posts can normalize such behaviours among teenagers, and they may stop realizing the potential risks involved.
Additionally, a study by Eggermont and Frison (2016) reported that social media has been observed to create anxiety in the form of the “fear of missing out”, commonly known as FOMO. FOMO can encourage teens to constantly use these platforms in the fear that they will miss out on key updates and the latest posts, or will be left behind in terms of the latest trend, yet again catering to their constant need of peer validation.
How do social media influencers worsen peer pressure?
In the past few years, we have witnessed the emergence of social media “influencers”. A study by Ellison and Fudenberg (1995) found that almost every time, users’ decisions tend to be influenced by the decisions of their peers, even when choosing between identical products. Marketing firms use the concept of peer influence and social media platforms as an advertisement strategy, and consumers’ decisions are hence largely affected by social media influencers. Because consumers associate with trust, using social media influencers, who share their personal experiences, turns out to be an effective advertising technique.
According to a 2018 literature review (by Kaijanto), influencers can impact adolescents’ decisions in terms of making certain choices by encouraging decisions that are peer approved. This in turn has a multiplier effect where the larger the peer group of an influencer is, the more consistent the opinions/decisions of the group become.
The problem emerges when adolescents are unable to differentiate between the influencer’s commercial opinions (paid reviews, political views, etc) and personal opinions. Additionally, sometimes followers may feel pressured to purchase products endorsed by the influencers. However, unable to have financial means to afford them, the teenagers may resort to theft or other deceitful activity to obtain those products.
Writing hateful comments, trolling or cyberbullying has also become a prevalent issue among social media users. An inability to live up to the society’s expectations or inability to accept rejections, can get teenagers involved in self-destructive activities or targeted hate crimes, which unfortunately only magnify their feelings of hopelessness and vulnerability. Cyberbullying has been found to have a profound impact on victims who, as a result, suffer from depression, anxiety, isolation, and even suicide. Social media platforms have also increased access to self-harming activities like suicide pacts and forums that encourage suicidal tendencies in teenagers. The PEW survey also found that bullying and spreading rumours were major concerns cited by adolescents who felt social media had a negative impact on their age group.
How can we use social media to deal with peer pressure?
Social media has created positive peer-to-peer influence as well, including the encouragement of healthy lifestyles, and encouraging teenagers to pick up new hobbies by observing their friends and family. Social media can also act as a getaway from certain stressors that adolescents are facing in their personal lives, though again, there are healthy limits to this, and once those are surpassed, social media may become an escape from reality, discouraging adolescents from addressing their problems in real life.
Adolescents get opportunities to meet like-minded individuals through social media platforms and also find mental support that allows them to deal better with peer pressure or any stress in general. It was found that of the teenagers who felt that social media had a mostly positive impact on their age group, 15% attributed it to meeting others with the same interests and 9% attributed it to social media being a good source of entertainment, which kept them upbeat. 7% attributed it to self-expression and 5% to getting support from others. Interestingly, the two most popular reasons were connecting with friends and family (40%) and increased ease in finding information (16%), both of which don’t directly address or alleviate peer pressure.
Social media can have many positive effects on adolescents, however, it’s important to ensure that teens are aware of how to maintain their privacy and remain safe online, to ensure that no harm comes to them through interacting with strangers on social media.
In summary, social media is a key part of teens’ lives today, and its impact on adolescents in terms of peer pressure is worth studying and addressing. Social media has been shown to induce peer pressure through behavioural display, reinforcement, and the amplification of the social desirability bias. As their brains are still developing, teens are more likely to partake in risky behaviours, making them the most obvious victims of peer pressure. Social media also introduces an aspect of permanence, pushing teens to conform with societal norms to avoid rejection. It normalizes risky behaviour, and also creates FOMO, reinforcing the pressure to recreate socially desirable behaviour. Social media can drastically increase unrealistic expectations, which causes the deterioration of mental health in teenagers, and also pushes them towards addiction and self-destructive behaviours.
On the other hand, it has enabled many adolescents to meet like-minded people or groups for mental support and it has also encouraged healthy lifestyles through peer influence, as well as acting as a source of stress relief and entertainment. Social media has certainly proven to be a double-edged sword, especially in terms of peer pressure amongst adolescents – it is important to acknowledge the benefits of social media, but the dangers cannot be ignored. On the way forward, it is important for us to ensure that we are educating adolescent users about these risks and empowering them to make informed decisions without succumbing to peer pressure.
I would like to thank Kiran Pandey, a postdoctoral fellow at New York University, for her thoughtful comments and suggestions while writing this article.
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