I was recently invited by the EPIC Club and Involve Club at SEGi University to participate for a public speaking competition. The topic that I had to discuss was this question: “Is social media creating moral degradation among adolescents?”. While doing my research I came across multiple contradictions that made me deeply think on how should I frame my opinion on this topic…
I prepared slides for my presentation which I would like to share with you. Here are the points that I discussed:
1. The speed of technological change
In the first 2 slides it is evident that while in the 1950s people consumed content from relatively limited channels, today the are far more sources for media consumption.
In fact, according to a study published by Wall Street Journal, it took only few years for the web and the smartphones to penetrate 25% of US population, yet it took decades for TV and radio to reach the same amount of people.
People have become web addicts! In the Middle East for example it was found that individuals spend 26 hours on the internet per week, which is far greater than any other media channel.
2. The state of social media in Malaysia
In Malaysia the situation is no different. It was found that in 2015, 66% of the population were active on the internet, and 56% of Malaysians were active social media users. They spend close to 3 and a half hours per day consuming social media. This indicates that a large proportion of adolescents in Malaysia are constantly bombarded with messages from social media.
3. What are morals?
In order to analyze whether social media influences morals or not, it is necessary to have a common understanding of what morals are. Yet, I found Cambridge Dictionary defines “morals” in 2 contradicting ways:
- Relating to the standards of good or bad behaviour, fairness, honesty, etc. that each person believes in, rather than to laws.
- Behaving in ways considered by most people to be correct and honest.
Hence, the first definition of morals is based on an internal source (own belief), while the second definition is based on an external source (most people).
Consequently, to answer the question at hand, one should take a position on which moral definition one will base his or her analysis on.
4. Media theories
Upon defining morals, I searched for prevailing media theories which examine how media influences individuals. In general there are 2 schools of thought both of which have been thoroughly studied by many scholars for decades:
- Hypodermic model: here the assumption is that the audience is passive and is very much influenced by what media channels communicate to them.
- Active audience model: here the assumption is that individuals choose what, when, and how to consume media messages. This means that content creators have to create messages that would appeal to individuals because otherwise no one will consume their content.
As such, there is no universal agreement on whether media influences people or the other way around…
5. Does social media degrade morals or not?
In order to answer that question we have to decide on where we stand in relation to definition of “morals”, and which media theory we want to base our analysis on. Therefore I see four possibilities which I will explain with an example.
Lets suppose that Mark is an adolescent and the moral value under discussion is discrimination.
1) If the definition of morals that we take is internal, then Mark, internally, may believe that discrimination is immoral and a bad thing to do. Consequently, under the hypodermic media theory, where the audience is considered as passive, it is possible that social media will influence the moral standards of Mark and change his moral value where he will consider discrimination as a good thing to do. However, since the definition of morals is internal, Mark will start considering discrimination as a moral act and as a result will still be a moral person although his moral value has been changed.
2) Under the same definition of morals and under the active audience model of media, Mark will only consume social media content that affirms his moral value that discrimination is bad. Hence, social media will not be degrading his morals.
3) If we take the second definition of morals on the other hand, which is external, that could mean that the society, where Mark lives, believes that discrimination is immoral. Under the hypodermic media theory therefore, social media can influence Mark’s moral standards and encourage him to racially discriminate others for example. In this situation social media will be degrading the morals of adolescents in that society because they might act in ways that do not match what is believed to be good by most people.
4) Under the same definition of morals and using the active audience model of media, Mark will mostly be exposed to content that is inline with social standards of morality. This is because under the active audience model of media, content creators will mostly generate content that people want to consume, consequently they produce content that is consistent with societal moral values. Therefore, if the society where Mark lives believes that discrimination is immoral, social media channels in that society will mostly contain messages that are inline with this moral value. Hence Mark will not degrade morally by consuming social media content.
As a result, given the 4 possibilities, only under the external definition of morals combined with the hypodermic media theory, social media can be degrading morals among adolescents. The other 3 possibilities end up where there is no moral degradation.
6. My opinion
What is discussed above is more or less a philosophical debate, yet I believe in practicalities. For me family plays a huge role in ensuring the morality of kids. Children are just like in a box of toys with exchangeable filters, and it is the duty of mothers and fathers to set appropriate moral filters that would prevent negative values from getting to the minds of the young ones.
Therefore, to ensure that adolescents stay ethical and moral, their upbringing has to focus on setting evaluation mechanisms and tools that children can use to evaluate what is good, what is bad, what is moral, and what is immoral.