We often describe adolescence as the point where dramatic changes occur, both developmentally and socially. Teenagers are gathering information, trying to gain a sense of self as it relates to others. Adolescence becomes a journey of self-discovery, risks, decision making, and the forming of interpersonal relationships that they choose. So, what happens when all of this is occurring, on social media?
In today’s world, social media is normal. It takes absolutely no thought process anymore to pick up our phones and instantly check Facebook. And for teenagers, the apps are endless and ever changing. Working at my current practicum site, I’ve noticed that a recurring theme with this age group is formulating and recognizing boundaries. Boundaries set by the teenagers themselves, and boundaries set by others alike. There’s also a test on boundaries; how far can the boundaries be pushed? No doubt, boundaries are abstractly defined and can be tailored to multiple ideas. However, for the sake of argument, let’s define boundaries as the demarcation between an individual and their environment. These boundaries can be physical, spiritual, and/or become limits to what we accept and don’t accept as appropriate from others. So, I began to wonder. What happens when teenagers in today’s society are forming their own boundaries and recognizing other’s boundaries, and it’s all being captured on social media? Videos, photographs, selfies, tweets, live videos on Facebook, status updates, SnapChat messages, and Instagram DM’s. Social media is deeply rooted in today’s culture, and as teenagers explore the world around them, they are capturing it all online. Now, don’t get me wrong, social media can be a good thing. It often allows those who experience social anxiety a fair shot at engaging in social activities without the one-on-one interaction. And, it allows for us to create an extended social support system with those who are not necessarily geographically close.
However, as a counselor in training, I am little weary of the idea of having the norm be such explicit documentation of our everyday lives. Adolescence is already a period in time where the most important thing is social and peer support. Teenagers are exploring their options of friends, and significant others. They are looking for connections to those who may share the same beliefs and/or culture as them. Personally, I could only imagine if all the decisions I made in my teenage years were accessible over the internet years later, in my adulthood, for all to see. I mean, let’s be honest, there’s been plenty of days when Facebook has alerted me of a memory, and I read it and go “My God, I wrote that?!?!?!”
Truth be told, the “invincibility effect” that comes with adolescence…. You never see it coming. I never in a million years, as a teenager, would have thought that the things I would’ve shared on MySpace, could affect my future career as I got older and outgrew a lot of the experimental things I’d done. Today’s generation of youth have practically lived their entire lives amongst social media, from YouTube videos to SnapChat videos (whose appeal is rooted in the idea that the videos are deleted in 24 hours).
I think, as a future counselor, and as a counselor in training, flexible boundaries in the real world and cyber world must be taken into consideration with an adolescent client. There’s tons of evidence suggesting that self-esteem, social acceptance, and bullying are all themes that erupt online amongst this age group, just as much as it does in their real-life. Not to mention, sexting and exploring sexual boundaries online have become a real issue for adolescents. And as I watch a number of my peers on social media scream to the high heavens that social media ruins relationships, I can’t help but to wonder if today’s adolescence have normalized the same behaviors and patterns of social media self-disclosure and interaction, as their parents have.
Social media isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon, and yet, here we are, watching our youth of today grow up so fast, with some much stimuli thrown at them. As counselors in training, the wellness model is heavily enforced, and I can’t help but to think that technology and social media and the vast world of the internet should become a pertinent piece in that model for which we help our clients. In addition, further research could definitely help to give us a better, clearer picture of just how ingrained social media is in the world of teenagers today. How much of social media is shaping their identities, the way they interact with one another, the way they interact with everyone else, or even, if they value social media over an actual interaction of a face-to-face conversation? What are their ideals about documenting everything, rather than just living in the moment? What ideals have they created pre-conceived notions about in regards to their self-image, in comparison to what they see on social media?
Inquiring about the importance of social media is our adolescent client’s lives seems quite important, along with all of the numerous steps we already take to helping our clients establish healthy and flexible boundaries. Maybe a conversation piece can be led from the boundaries we set when we exclude our clients from having access to our social media, in an effort to inquire about their individual perspectives on social media.
Poonam “Poo” Ethakotu is a counselor- in- training at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and is working towards specializing in marriage and family counseling, along with sex therapy.