Clinical Therapist

Child, Adolescent, Adult, & Couples Therapy
Founder of ‘ The AND Discipline Method ’
Mum, Step-Mum
Author – Published Nationally & Internationally

Young girl looking at mobile phone

Social media – a blessing and problematical

Dr Anna Martin talks about the more serious responsibilities we have towards young people on social media.

Social media is obviously here to stay, and I have some concerns! Teens and tweens discuss experiences associated with their social media interactions. Anxiety, depression and food related disorders and body image are just some of the topics challenging their well-being. Understandable, given that at this age one of their primary focuses is in achieving peer acceptance and group inclusion.

As a therapist I often observe first-hand the ugly side of how social media directly impacts on an individual’s sense of self-worth and self-acceptance and how destructive it can be when a tween or teen has little knowledge or education around the workings and the potential side-effects of social media usage.

Parents battle to keep their children off social media for as long as possible in order to protect their growing identities. Most adults are only too aware that the influences of social media and the drive for recognition through ‘likes’ and acknowledgements can be destructive on even healthy young and more mature individuals. Unfortunately, when people assume that social media will enable their emotional connection needs to be met, they are also inadvertently being exposed to a behavioural conditioning regimes such as intermittent reinforcement (similar to gamblers and slot machines). Intermittent reinforcement keeps people hooked into seeking feedback on a more ad hoc basis, never quite knowing when they will receive the pleasure hormones the ‘like’ or ‘comment’ that their post or image will provide them. Unfortunately, with the lack of knowledge and the behaviours being set up behind the scenes, a person has often been hooked in without their awareness and it can be difficult to escape from.

Certainly, some aspects of social media and how it is used can only but increase the pressure on young people today, particularly if they use it as a measure of success and happiness. Social media is one dimensional in many ways. Although it can portray a tapestry of images, aligned with the concept of sharing and caring providing insight into a person’s daily life and receiving feedback, the images are often specifically chosen to describe a narrative that person wants you to see, similar to brand management. This may sound cynical. It is not meant to be. It is more about highlighting the real risks people, particularly youth, are up against. Teens are more susceptible because, again, their developmental stage involves being sensitive to peer acceptance. They can be sucked down a vortex associated with a manipulated reality.

What tweens and teens may not have a full understanding of is the number of attempts to achieve the right image before it is posted. The observer (the post receiver) is not privy to the behind the scenes process. Recently, someone described to me the process of producing and selecting the right image for a very popular social media account. The final image selected on this occasion projected perfection, yet two feet either side of that image (undisclosed to the recipient) was chaos. How is the recipient of that image supposed to decipher reality? Instead, teens (and adults) can quickly fall into the process of comparative analysis! Without this awareness an individual, particularly if you do not have a secure sense of self, can dive into self-criticism, and feelings of unworthiness. Essentially, they are measuring and comparing their own self- worth based on a manipulated image not founded in reality.

Social media and connectivity

A further concern relates to real-life connectivity. When you experience connection primarily through social media apps an immediate barrier to real-life connection is presented. Real-life in-person connections are crucial. People thrive on human connection. It enriches people’s lives and decreases risks such as developing anxiety, depression and loneliness. In-person experiences also provide an opportunity to practice reading non-verbal cues and bi-directional communication, where you experience how your communication ‘lands’ on someone else, thus receiving feedback and learning more about your environment and yourself. In other words, you participate in a more fulfilled and deeper experience.

More recently, I have noted more a push back from the perfectly portrayed ‘brand’ images with people motivated to communicate ‘realness’ and authenticity. For example, when someone demonstrates vulnerability (I do question the overuse of this word – it appears to be a ‘populist’ word at present) by openly describing their life challenges. Despite my slight cynicism around the use of the word but not the concept of vulnerability the thought of more realness is inspiring. I hope the practice of vulnerability and being brave continues, and the focus is on compassion, self-acceptance and humanity.

Most people experience challenging emotions and have moments of self-doubt, feelings] of sadness, anxiety, or believe they are not capable or worthy. This is called being human. Treating yourself as your own best-friend and practicing self-compassion (self-kindness, a sense of common humanity and mindfulness according to Dr Kristin Neff) can assist with the development of resilience and strength. Ask yourself how you would respond to your best friend if they described self-doubt and unworthiness to you?

How to mitigate the risks of social media!

It can also be helpful for young people to reflect on and consider their values – what they identify as being important, for example, kindness, caring, persistence and courage. Personal values are intrinsic and not as vulnerable to external factors beyond your control. Wherever you go, your values come with you. Self-esteem on the other hand tends to rely on external measures, for example, whether you received an A grade, or won a sports match. These external measures can be fluid and fleeting. A person’s values help identify how a person wants to respond rather than be swayed by images, that are primarily representing the person’s narrative.

Social media provides some benefits, yet it is crucial for youth in particular to learn how to navigate and manage these experiences. Maybe a focus for parents could be investing in self-compassion and mindfulness courses for their children. With self-compassion teens are more able to accept their humanness and have tolerance and love for their efforts and mistakes. In addition, self-compassionate people are more likely to have compassion for others, which will help break down barriers and minimise experiences of isolation and loneliness. Further, if parents can normalise challenging emotions and help their children understand that mistakes are part of life, they are more likely to move towards self-acceptance rather than self-criticism. The fact that every single one of us makes mistakes and mess up children will feel safer to learn about themselves and life.

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