Why Social Media is Bad for High School and College Students

We live in an instant gratification society. Almost all popular smartphone and social media apps are “in the moment” apps. Snapchat allows users to view a photo or video for 10 seconds, the majority of Instagram likes are acquired in the first half hour and the half life of a tweet is less than a minute. High school and college students have adjusted their behavior to get engagement quickly rather than being patient and finding success later. This has been shown time and again through actions.

Remember, what we say and what we do are two completely different things. A fish does not know it is in water just like high school and college students do not realize they have almost no self control. This is illustrated in the dating scene, or lack thereof, of college students. Today, college students do not go on dates and “friends with benefits” are common. Our entire lives we have heard that patience is a virtue yet it is something students ignore.

The Marshmallow Test

Walter Mischel’s marshmallow test is famous in the psychology world. This test challenged children to refuse an immediate smaller reward for a larger later reward. Children between the ages of three and five were placed in a room in which a marshmallow was sitting across the table, out of reach. The children had a bell beside them on the table. The experimenter told the children they could ring the bell and have one marshmallow at any time or they could wait fifteen minutes and have two marshmallows.

The experimenter left the room and the willpower game began. None of these children were on a diet therefore they could have as much sugar as they desired. Despite the the later reward, less than one third lasted the full fifteen minutes. The average child lasted about five minutes before giving in. Patience and self control were shown to be non existent when the carrot was dangled in front of their face.

Self control is one of the greatest assets a person can have when it comes to predicting success and happiness. The same children that took the marshmallow test were analyzed in terms of GPA and SAT scores more than a decade later. On average, the preschoolers that waited the full fifteen minutes to get the two marshmallows scored more than 200 points better on the SAT than those who gave up after 30 seconds.

People with high levels of self control have higher incomes, higher credit scores, better health, and better social skills from childhood to adulthood, and they report being happier with life. 

How does the marshmallow test and self control relate to social media?

Social Media is an Instant Gratification Ecosystem

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, almost all social apps are designed to catch a users attention for a brief period of time. I will give you an example of how Twitter is being used on a college campus. A student hears something funny so they immediately pull out their iPhone and “tweet” the exact quote that made them laugh. They then text a few of their friends and wait. What are they waiting for? A quick response. They want their friends to retweet, favorite or comment on the tweet. They will hold their phone in front of their face for up to five minutes refreshing the app in hopes of getting multiple responses quickly.

After three to five minutes they will likely give up, put their smartphone in their pocket and move on. Some may even hop over to Snpachat to share a funny face to their friends in hopes of…..you got it, instant gratification. Snapchat allows users to see how quickly someone views a snap (photo). The desire is to have multiple people respond to this snap quickly. Once again, the student will refresh Snapchat a few times. Maybe while they are Snapchatting they received some retweets on the funny quote. If both of these actions fail there is always Instagram.

The student can walk to a beautiful part of campus, take a selfie with the Old Well in the background, and wait for the likes to roll in. Statistics show that the majority of likes happen in the first 30 minutes of a photo being shared. Shocking, more instant gratification which leads to no self control. Popular photos from college students can garner as many as 100 likes in the first 10 minutes of the photo being shared. Why on earth would students be sitting on an app waiting to instantly like each others photos? Instant gratification.

There is not a single social media app that does not encourage a short attention span. Most modern online “news outlets” share articles that are shorter in length or are bullet points. The news outlets that are sharing longer, more in depth articles cater to the older and more educated audience. In the long run, the longer articles will always provide more value and more income to the writer and publisher. Unfortunately, high school and college students are unaware of this.

What the Future Holds

Every time I hire an intern or a writer I ask them if they can write at length. Most of them explain that even the UNC Journalism School teaches them to write in a concise manner. In fact, anything over a page is too long. I have to simply roll my eyes at this mindset. As discussed earlier, self control is a direct predictor of success in life. If you want to reach an audience that is successful it is going to take time, effort and depth. A 200 word article on the overall economy will never be as valuable as a 15,000 word researched document. The 200 word article may very well go viral on Twitter or Facebook but the half life of this piece will be about 24 hours while the half life of the 15,000 word resource could be years and even decades.

In the next decade we are going to see a huge gap in terms of the haves and have nots; especially in the marketing and journalism industries. Students that want to “get rich quick” and have little to no self control will not be nearly as successful as students that are willing to put in the time to create quality. Those preschoolers that are willing to wait the fifteen minutes to get two marshmallows are living a much better life than the preschooler that rang the bell after 30 seconds.

Social media will continue to promote instant gratification. The high school and college students that can exude self control and patience will be the successful adults as the become professionals. The students that can build self control at a younger age will be the ones that see resounding success earlier in life.

So, the next time you are walking across campus and your phone notifies you of a text, Snapchat or retweet try just leaving the phone in your pocket and waiting an extra 15 minutes to respond. If your son or daughter is having trouble in school send them this article and do your best to encourage patience in all aspects of life. Their relationships will be better, they will make better grades and, ultimately, they will be a much happier person.

For more on social psychology and how the brain can exercise self control read Part Four: Harmonizing of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Matthew D. Lieberman.


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[…] We live in an instant gratification society. Almost all popular smartphone and social media apps are “in the moment” apps. Snapchat allows users to view a photo or video for 10 seconds, the majority of Instagram likes are acquired in the first half hour and the half life of a tweet is less than a minute. High school and college students have adjusted their behavior to get engagement quickly rather than being patient and finding success later. This has been shown time and again through actions. R  […]