Amid "Likes" and "Shares," Facebook Jeopardizes Children's Health and Safety

Amid "Likes" and "Shares," Facebook Jeopardizes Children's Health and Safety

March 14, 20243 min read

On February 4, 2004, a 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg launched “TheFacebook.” Developed in his Harvard University residence hall, it began as a networking service for his roughly 7,000 classmates. Today, it is the most popular social media platform in existence, boasting over three billion monthly active users worldwide.

Through two decades of “likes” and “shares,” Facebook has transformed how people connect, interact and think. Driving everything from dinner parties and concert outings to political campaigns and protest movements, it has frequently been celebrated for its ability to convey information, mobilize groups and galvanize change. However, it has also been criticized for its questionable content management choices, its suspect data collection practices and, perhaps most notably, its role in feeding an ever-growing mental health crisis among children and adolescents—a charge Zuckerberg refutes.

Elizabeth Burgess Dowdell, PhD, RN, FAAN, is a professor in Villanova University’s M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing and an expert on the health and safety risks posed by social media. From her perspective, Facebook and platforms like it have undoubtedly played a part in heightening levels of emotional distress and physical harm among youths.

“Statistically, it’s well-established in the literature that mental health issues and concerning behaviors among children have escalated tremendously,” said Dr. Dowdell. “They’re becoming sadder, more depressed and lonelier, even though they’re very connected.”

To Dr. Dowdell’s point, mental health disorders began rising precipitously among young people in the years following Facebook’s launch. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of children aged 6 to 17 years “ever having been diagnosed with either anxiety or depression” increased from 5.4% in 2003 to 8% in 2007 and 8.4% in 2011-2012.

And just last year, in the era of Instagram and TikTok, Mental Health America found that 11.5% of children in the United States were struggling with severe depression, with 16% of youths aged 12 to 17 years having experienced a major depressive episode in the past 12 months.

A contributing factor, according to Dr. Dowdell, is the way social media construes reality. Flooded with images, posts and videos that show hyper-idealized, rose-colored representations of life, impressionable young users can be made to feel isolated, inept or dissatisfied with their appearance.

“I think adults understand that a ‘perfect’ picture is often preceded by a dozen other photos,” she said. “Kids don’t always see it like that. They focus on what makes them happy and what makes them sad—and what makes them feel sad about themselves.”

Tragically, throughout the social media age, this sadness has been tied to increasing rates of suicide, self-harm and risky behavior among youths. A 2023 CDC study found that the suicide rate for children aged 10 to 14 years tripled from 2007 to 2018 (from 0.9 deaths per 100,000 to 2.9), and in 2021-2022, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children noted a 35% year-over-year increase in reports of suspected child sexual exploitation.

Amid these frightening statistics, Dr. Dowdell emphasizes the importance of caring, compassionate adults’ involvement in young people’s lives. She notes these individuals’ presence can not only shield youths from potentially hazardous situations but give them the tools to cope with traumatic episodes and feelings of despair.

“The critical factor that helps children become resilient is having a support system—having family members, parents or trusted adults with whom they can talk,” Dr. Dowdell shared. “They might go down the rabbit hole, but they have someone to pull them out, someone to help them.”

For adults concerned about their loved ones’ social media use, Dr. Dowdell stresses that empathy and understanding are key. In turn, she advocates for an approach that reflects the supposed purpose of Facebook and platforms like it: active conversation.

“It all comes back to communication,” she said. “Parents and guardians need to role-model responsible behaviors. They need to talk about these things: ‘What did you look at today?’ ‘What was good?’ ‘What was bad?’ ‘What did you think?’ ‘How did you feel about that?’

“It’s much like, when children are little, reading them books. When we read to children, we engage them… Why not read the social media feeds, look at the Facebook posts or go through Instagram? These forms of engagement, the conversations we have, let them know they can come and talk.”

Connect with:
  • Elizabeth  Burgess Dowdell, PhD
    Elizabeth Burgess Dowdell, PhD Professor and Coordinator of Undergraduate Research | M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing

    Elizabeth Dowdell, PhD, RN, FAAN, is an expert in the use of social media by adolescents and the health risks posed by online behaviors.

powered by

You might also like...