Natalie Evans, a media and communications professor at the University of Guelph-Humber, still remembers using a typewriter to complete her assignments when she started university in the mid-90s.
Connecting with peers and professors used to be an in-person ordeal during Evans’ undergraduate degree, but it changed quickly. “Even within that three to four years, I went from having a typewriter to having internet and computer at home,” she says.
Today, the internet is a large part of society and has shifted the way that people communicate with one another. An academic study found that the iGeneration—those born between 1995 and 2012—spend less time interacting in-person and more time on digital media platforms than previous generations.
Evans says the frequency in which young people use social media is cause for concern. “Technology is owned by corporations that are out to make money,” she says. “You have to be really careful.”
Social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok have addictive qualities and consume a lot of people’s time. Research by Common Sense found that the proportion of teens who use social media more than once a day doubled from 34 per cent in 2012 to 70 per cent in 2018.
Even though social media was designed as a way to enhance and maintain connectedness, about 40 per cent of youth who participated in a study reported negative mental health effects of using social media. Some of these effects include feeling overwhelmed by drama or pressured to present themselves in a certain way.
Evans teaches a first-year course on happiness at the University of Guelph, and notices the association between phone use and her students’ moods. She conducts a weekly experiment in which every student tests new habits to see if it improves their happiness. “A lot of students start tracking their time on their phone and seeing how they can reduce it,” she says.
The pressure and comparison that many people experience while using social media today was not a concern of the past. “Constantly looking at who is prettier, who’s fitter, who is having fun, who has an awesome relationship and you know, the constant competition,” says Evans. Visual elements such as photos, videos, editing and filters create a false image of how people live on a day-to-day basis.
Laura Bourbonnais, a fourth-year screenwriting student at York University, says she finds herself focusing too much on other people’s lives. As a competitive dancer, she often compares her skills to others on social media. “All these people are doing tricks, like triple pirouettes and I can’t do that,” she says. “Or that person’s showing off their splits, or that person has a different body type that I want to have.”
Bourbonnais says that she feels a lot more pressure now when it comes to hitting certain milestones. “Now it’s more like what people are doing career-wise.”
However detrimental social media can be to mental health, it can also be beneficial in terms of allowing people to speak up about social justice issues and staying informed about world events. “As long as you’re making sure everything is legitimate, it can be really powerful and really helpful just in educating people and knowing what’s going on,” says Bourbonnais. “Where you probably otherwise wouldn’t have if you don’t have cable or read the newspaper.”
International students or those with family overseas can also use social media as a way to stay in touch. Video calling and keeping track of family around the world can provide an intimate way of virtually connecting that was never possible before.
When it comes to developing a healthy relationship with social media, Evans says “don’t restrict.” Instead, think about adding more offline activities into the day to decrease time spent online. Trying new activities such as going for a tech-free walk, sketching, painting or running may even ignite a new passion or hobby.