When it was new, and when we were all younger, social media was a godsend.

MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat later on — all were unique and engaging ways to kill time after (or during) school, keep in touch with friends, and carefully cultivate the way we presented ourselves to the world. These platforms seemed, at the time, harmless.

As younger millennials grew up, and as social media firmly established itself in the lives of nearly everyone, things changed. Or, rather, there were things we noticed for the first time.

What Millennials Have Learned about Social Media

The things we noticed about social media, about ourselves, and about our peers were troubling. They highlighted a fact that has now become abundantly clear: social media and its impacts are a major issue for our generation, and perhaps an even greater issue for the generation to come.

We’ve noticed that social media doesn’t provide us joy anymore, at least not exclusively.

We’ve noticed that we’re constantly envious of others, constantly burying our heads in our phones only to be more and more upset by what we see.

When we look at social media, we’re often seeing the carefully cultivated and meticulously edited “highlight” reels of our peers: exotic vacations, college acceptances, success at work, happy relationships, memorable nights out on the town — all that and more. As we young millennials grew up and became acutely aware of our place in the world, our needs, our desires, and the limitations life places on us, the balance of emotions provided by social media shifted. It shifted from joy and entertainment to horrendous self-consciousness, anxiety, anger, and, at times, crippling loneliness.

Independent of social media, getting through one’s teenage and early adult years is a difficult challenge, a time rife with self-consciousness and self-doubt. Along with social media use comes the need to be in the spotlight, continuously available, and always aware of the progress of your closest peers. It can make growing up all the more difficult, and for some, it can make growing up unbearable.

We’ve noticed that social media empowers negative thoughts and negative behavior.

We’ve come to notice that the inherent power of social media platforms — the ability to broadcast our views, our opinions, and our beliefs to everyone — is being used to broadcast hate, bigotry, and closed-mindedness.

We’ve noticed that misinformation is far too easy to spread. It passes far too easily as legitimate information, and it is dangerously persuasive and dangerously shareable. We’ve seen it infect the minds of friends and family whom we previously thought were reasonable, logical, well-educated people.

We’ve also noticed that these platforms and the spotlight they put on participants have somehow made bullying — an all-too-common experience for many growing up — worse. The constant connection offered by social media, once a cherished trait, has often made escape from bullying impossible and one’s humiliation more public than it should be.

We’ve noticed that our information — and our experience — is being taken advantage of.

I think everyone has noticed that those previously “harmless” platforms are now popping up in the news more and more often. Hacks, data leaks, mountains of precious digital information are falling into malicious hands. Our lives, our interests, and our activity are no longer private.

If our private data isn’t stolen, then it’s being used against us — or, rather, being used to take advantage of us. Social media interfaces have transformed to make advertisements more prominent. Our interests, passions, histories — anything public on the internet, regardless of how sacred or personal it seems to us — are being used to sell us things. No matter how much we may like shopping, we cannot deny the vague sense that something has been violated.

We’ve noticed how naive we’ve been.

We’ve come to notice that these problems were always inherent to the various platforms and how they operate.

These platforms were always ripe for exploitation, either by third parties or by the platforms themselves. We were just too young (at the time) and too enamored to notice or care, too preoccupied to listen to anyone who was warning us. We didn’t see, we didn’t listen, and now we’re left to pick up the pieces that resulted from our stubbornness.

Alas, millennials, even younger millennials like me, can remember (vaguely) a time without social media and widespread internet access. We’ve found ways to adapt, found ways to negate many of the negative influences of social media without losing the benefits we may still cherish.

But what about the next generation? What about those just now entering their teen years, those who have not existed at a time without widespread social media presence?

Social Media Could be a Bigger Problem for Generation Z

I suppose the answer to “is it a greater problem” depends on how well Gen Z can learn from what’s currently going on around them.

Members of Gen Z are the first “digital natives,” the first generation to be intimately familiar with the technology, the internet, and social media from an early age. While this may make them adept at searching the web and troubleshooting various devices, will it also make them more cautious about how they handle their private data online? Will it help them to understand the downfalls of social media easier?

While Gen Z may have a better grasp on the digital landscape, they are, after all, teenagers: lacking in critical thinking, prone to impulsiveness, and not the best at making long-term decisions. That being the case, what social-media-related mentorship can millennials, young and old, provide?

Social Media Advice for Generation Z

Keep it close. At first, everyone thinks they want thousands of Facebook friends and thousands upon thousands of Instagram/Twitter followers. There is no greater validation of your “popularity,” (so you think) than watching that number next to your avatar grow steadily larger. But once the initial thrill of friend/follower accumulation wears off, you realize that that number is almost entirely empty.

Those people aren’t your friends (harsh but true) and, in all honesty, they don’t provide you much value besides just being some digital trophies that are slowly gathering dust. Social media is the most useful — and the least harmful from a mental standpoint — when it is used to enhance your actual, real-life friend circle. Even if you don’t have many real-life friends, focus on fostering quality over quantity in your social media. Small, intimate online groups may be less stimulating, but they’ll often provide you with more concrete value.

Social media will always have a much longer memory than you do. If a particular social media platform falls out of vogue, or if you grow bored of it and decide to leave it behind, do not, under any circumstances, just abandon it. Delete it, deactivate it if you must, but do not allow the things you’ve said, posted, or endorsed sit and decay.

It turns out that the opinions and beliefs you had when you were 15 may not hold up well to scrutiny or societal change once you enter your 20s. People change over time, and what you said when you were young and impressionable does not necessarily weigh on who you are now. Make sure you clean up anything potentially troublesome before you leave an account behind. It could save you a massive headache down the road.

Remember that social media is a curation of moments. One’s social media profile is rarely an accurate representation of their life. Every fun adventure you see, every wild night out on the town, was carefully chosen, cropped, and edited.

The supposed glamor of many social media profiles is what often causes so much mental pain, feelings of loneliness, and self-doubt. If you can see past the illusion and realize that social media isn’t reality — or, more accurately, a curated and airbrushed reality — then you’ll be better prepared to combat any feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt.

With Power Comes Responsibility

Social media is an issue that will span the remainder of this generation. Its power to connect and entertain has been surpassed perhaps by its ability to alienate and enrage.

Millennials have been mostly successful at adapting. As quickly as they embraced social media, they’ve been equally quick to leave it behind or severely curtail their use.

The next generation, Gen Z, may be a different story. They are young now, and while they may have a superior grasp on the digital landscape, they are still prone to the mistakes and oversights of youth.

I have confidence in Gen Z to overcome the woes of social media exposure, but they need our mentorship. They need to hear the wisdom we’ve gleaned from our time as the “crash test dummies” for a completely new and revolutionary form of entertainment. Many of them may not listen, but then again, the next generation is always supposed to be wiser and more considerate than the last. I think they’ll hear us out.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
As Millennials recognize how social media is impacting them personally and professionally, they're uniquely suited to mentor Gen Z and future generations.