We live in a world where our interconnectedness almost never goes away. Our phones tell us we have a new message on a social media platform; we get a friend request; someone likes (or dislikes) a posting we did; and on it goes. Social media has many positive aspects by drawing us together and helping us interact even when far apart. But there is also a dark side, the side that brings us cyberbullying, psychological harassment, and all sorts of anxiety and emotional drama. This side also gives us a sense of anonymity that encourages us to do or say things we typically would avoid in normal face-to-face interactions.
The downside of social media can have tragic effects. In 2009 18-year old Tyler Clementi’s roommates at Rutgers University exposed him on the internet as gay. Tyler’s subsequent mortification and stress eventually led him to jump to his death off the George Washington Bridge. Tyler’s case is not isolated. We hear about these tragic cyber incidents too frequently.
Social media has a tremendous influence on our youth. The Pew Research Center finds nearly 70% of social media-using users encounter intense stress and anxiety from content on the platforms. Psychologists have also linked internet use with depression. If you are a parent with children under the age of 25 you probably struggle with anxiety over how to insulate them from harmful social media, and how to guide them through it when the negative influence takes hold.
Discussing social media in the context of depression may seem kind of strange, but the fact is that “the ugly” aspects of this part of modern life often causes and complements psychological issues like depression. Imagine those experiencing sadness, self-doubts, or anxiety. They scroll through their phones and see so many of their friends and peers having fun and enjoyable times. Now remember, on social media they usually see only a positive “highlight-reel” from others, entries that highlight the good times. The problem is, watching these “highlight-reels” too much can make those struggling with depression think less of themselves. They may also be motivated by their depression, jealousy, and anger to start online fights, or bully others.
We have had many conversations with students after they break-up with their significant other, and how they turn to social media to deal with their hurt. They often become obsessed with “cyber-stalking,” looking at what their ex is doing; they begin to distort items their ex posts and interpret those items as attacks directed at them. Then they begin to lash out at the ex and others. This is today’s social reality, often a difficult, frustrating, and confusing reality that adds to the emotional upheaval when relationships end. In fact, often the partner’s use of social media is the cause of a relationship ending!
Cyber-dramas are frequent, and in the extreme they foster and strengthen serious psychological problems like depression. They also have significant effects on the psychological development that young people go through as they try to navigate through their daily lives. To a great extent, how they view themselves, how they interact with others, and the lens through which they see the world is greatly influenced by social media. This reality presents quite a challenge to young folks, and to parents and family who are trying to assist them in their growth.
WHAT CAN USERS OF SOCIAL MEDIA DO?
- If you are struggling with sadness, depression, anxiety, or other emotional upheavals, it is likely a good idea to stay away from social media’s highlight-reel as much as possible. Remember that everyone has struggles, but most people do not post them for the world to see. It’s more likely that they display their happiness, which just gives you a false comparison to make against your own problems.
- Find ways to limit your use. Yes, social media is a way to stay connected when people are not in front of you, but be aware that the “real” is much more important. There is something to be said for face-to-face communication.
- Do your socializing in the “real world” by getting active, involved in new things, and finding new challenges. Do not dwell on what you are not doing. Begin making your own “highlight-reel.” Assess your habits and actions. Be aware of how your own personality works and how you react to things. There may be some inappropriate things that you need to avoid. Find positive actions that allow you to take charge of yourself.
- When conflict arises between you and someone else, try to take the high road. You have no control over what another person says or posts about you. Why escalate the hostility by responding and trying to “one-up” them? You are then playing on their home court and dealing with things out of your control.
- Remember that your post is out there forever for all to see. Even if you post only to your “friends” you never know who will do something potentially harmful to you with that information. Follow the sage advice: “If you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see it, Don’t Post It!” Your online reputation can account for much of your overall reputation. Remember, innocent until proven guilty does not happen on social media – you are guilty in the eyes of public opinion much faster and it sticks!
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?
- Have an open dialogue with your kids about their social media and internet activities. Communication helps monitor activities and postings without secretly spying.
- Know the platforms and stay on top of the trends. Facebook and Twitter are not the only games in town. Snapchat, Kik, and other apps continually appear, grow in influence, and constantly change. Talk to other parents and put your heads together to stay on top of things.
- Be your kids’ “friend” on every app. Following them as they navigate this social media world is important and you will catch things a lot quickly being in the inner loop. If you have the chance, follow some of their friends to keep even further in the loop. Remember, the goal is not to spy; the goal is to help your kids become more sophisticated users.
- What is posted is forever! Teach your kids about their online reputation and image by monitoring what they post. Also, remind them that prospective employers are going to check them out online.
- Privacy settings or “parental controls” really are on your side. You can set these as strict as you want. Just be open and honest with your kids about it.
- There are “watchdog apps” and sites out there to help you monitor internet and social activity usage. Notable apps are NetNanny, My Mobile Watchdog, Bark, Norton Family Premier, and Qustodio.
- Accept the reality that you will never know everything, which is probably the hardest aspect of social media for parents to accept. But it’s true, and that brings us back to our first tip above. If you have good communication with your kids, you really are not fighting a battle, but are working with an ally to use social media in a productive way.