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The risk for youth on social media has been a hot topic recently, and Lake Oswego teenagers say their relationship with the platforms is complicated.

Emily Rask first downloaded Instagram when she was in the fifth grade. Not long after that, the cyberbullying started.

At first, it was "super little things," said Rask, who is currently a senior at Lake Oswego's Harmony Academy. Some of her classmates took screenshots of her posts, making malicious comments targeting her appearance. Then in middle school, it escalated. She was taunted again for the way she looked and for struggling with depression.

It took its toll on Rask. She began restricting her eating to look a certain way. In her final year of middle school, she experienced a "really bad overdose" on a substance.

"I started to believe all the things that were being said about me and that I wasn't good enough," she said. "I just wanted to end my life because all these people saw so much bad in me."PMG PHOTO: CLARA HOWELL - As social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram receive more public scrutiny, local students say their experiences have been mixed.

Rask's story is not a far skip from the experiences of other teenagers who have grown up using social media platforms. Recent leaked documents from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen show that social media can be toxic for young people and directly impact their mental health. And as some surveys suggest about 75% of young people use at least one social media platform per day, deciding whether these platforms are harmful is a hot topic.

Students and behavioral health specialists in the Lake Oswego School District shared with the Review that social platforms can be a cocktail of both the positive and negative.

Comparison culture

Some young adults view social media as a hub for social interaction and expressing themselves. For others, it harbors a feeling of being isolated from others.

Another senior in the school district, Owen, shared his story of how the popularity he thought he wanted wasn't what it was cracked up to be.

Now, Owen primarily uses social media to post photography and stay up to date with friends.

But a couple of years ago, Owen used his social platforms to sell drugs. Before entering the market, he saw how other digital dealers had respect and popularity — something he wanted.

"Then once I got that popularity from selling drugs, and just having that persona and lifestyle … you get well-known really fast, but it's scary. You can get into some really dangerous situations," he said.

Social media has often been linked to children forming unrealistic standards about how they should look, act or eat. This can prompt depression, anxiety and dissociation if not alleviated by specialists. Researchers from Instagram found 32% of teenage girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram heightened their distaste.

"Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves," the researchers said in a March 2020 article.

Rask primarily uses Instagram. She said looking at photos of other people has previously altered the way she perceives herself.

"I definitely have had a ton of questioning about my body image and saying things like, 'Why don't I look like these girls? Why can't I have enough money for that?' Or, 'Why can't I fit this image that society says I should look like?'" she said.

As a school psychologist at Lake Oswego High, Wendy Stiles has seen how social media can create a culture of comparison among adolescents. Stiles said youth may experience this sense of "FOMO", or "fear of missing out," when they are on social media, which can heighten anxiety and feelings of loneliness.

"Now there's this sense of immediacy: I need to go do it, or get it, or be it," she said, whereas in real-life interactions, teenagers are less likely to compare themselves to their peers because they are more focused on the moment. She reminded students that social media presents curated posts that portray people the way they want others to see them.

"I've seen posts on social media … like 'What I Eat in a Day' videos, and I think that can be pretty harmful, because it's setting expectations that maybe aren't the most realistic, especially for young girls who are susceptible to being influenced by that kind of thing," said Rebecca Prasass, a student at LOHS and founder of the school's Mental Health Awareness Club. "But you don't always have to fit into your feed. It's OK to have hard days and not be like the perfect Instagram post."

Lifeline, liability and liberation

Yet social media has many upsides, according to students. Platforms have long been connected as a way for youth to develop meaningful social connections with others.

"Social media is a lifeline for them. That's how they connect with their peers and their family members," Stiles said.

The students all said they use social media to connect with their friends and family. During the pandemic, it was a great way for some to feel less lonely by checking up with their peers.

For marginalized communities like LGBTQ+ students and youth of color, who are more likely to experience "othering" in person, Internet communities can offer safe spaces. Online forums and groups have been noted to serve as a tool for youth who feel isolated from their peers to connect with others of similar interests.

"Sometimes (social media) can be isolating, but in some ways, it can really help build a sense of community when you realize you're not the only one that's struggling with something," Stiles said.

Social platforms can also act as springboards for activism. A June 2020 survey by Pew Research Center found that one-third of young social media users used a social platform to share a photo in support of a social justice cause they cared about.

"It's a really good thing because you can get a message around to so many people, and educate people," said Owen.

Stiles said that social media is also a great way for educators and behavioral health specialists to push out information and resources to young people. Early in the pandemic, she used the high school's Instagram page to link resources for students who might have been struggling with the pandemic and the isolation it caused.

'60/60'

Stiles said students' perception of social media all boils down to how they chose to interact with their platforms.

"Social media definitely is not this evil thing. If you are intentional with social media and using it to connect to people and not just a nameless, faceless follower, but rather a friend, and you are not projecting a picture of yourself … then it can be very liberating," she said.

Owen says social media is neither bad nor good.

"It's not even 50/50, more like 60/60," he said. "It's scary how information spreads and something you told one person is shared to, I'm not even kidding, another thousand people. But also the activism part is really good."

At Harmony Academy, a high school designed to support students recovering from substance or mental health issues, Rask sits in a classroom in the colorful building decorated with student artwork. She shares that social media can be a dangerous place for young people if not monitored properly.

"Having social media should come with a level of maturity and understanding that so many people are going to see you and so many people are going to have their own opinions on you," she said.

Since her first introduction to social media in primary school, Rask has gained a healthy relationship with the platforms by limiting who she associates with and keeping her accounts private.

"People should remember that it doesn't matter what all these other people think and it can either be a super great space to share yourself or it can be a super toxic space. It really depends on how you use it," Rask said.


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