It’s true that “Know thyself,” is a wise bit of advice. For counselors, we must also know our clients. To best serve teenage and young adult clients, we need to know the lingo. Some of us have kids and we just sort of know things. Others of us do the homework and learn so we can work with this amazing population that faces so many unique challenges.
A few months ago - months before any news stories broke about a young Russian man bent on helping “worthless” people toward suicide, my daughter told me about the “blue whale challenge”. We talked about it. She had some concerns about friends she felt like might be in on the challenge. After giving her some tools to help get friends she was worried about pointed in the right direction, I started doing some homework.
I do a lot of work with teens and young adults. Inside that population I see a lot of anxiety, depression, non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), and suicidality. In one way or another, at least some component of their presenting problems are associated with online activity.
It would be all too easy for me to point a finger at social media, the internet, or the oft maligned millennial generation. I don’t believe those are the issues, although I see some clear social and cultural issues that must be addressed by both mental health professionals and parents of children and teens. The main issue is that we went into the internet and social media thing blind - totally unprepared and unaware of the potential for negative fallout it held.
I’m what people call an “old millennial” although I match more of the typical Generation X criteria than any millennial criteria. I grew up without the internet. It was first becoming a thing when I was in the 7th and 8th grade. It existed and had before, but my parents weren’t having any of it. I remember when not everyone had a computer, much less internet access, not to mention high speed connections powerful enough to stream movies or download more than one song in an hour. I remember having to ask to use the computer in my parents’ house because it was in my step-father’s office and we had to ask first. I’d only be on it for so long before my mother would tell me time was up. I wasn’t just let loose with it.
Many parents of teens and young adults that I encounter were raised similarly. It was there but it wasn’t as big a presence as it is now. Combine the increased availability and affordability of both internet and computers alongside the development of smart phones, and soon everyone was on the internet.
It’s become as commonplace as lights and running water.
Information and knowledge are such amazing things to have access to, and I think while most of us “old millennials” or Generation X-ers were online in harmless ways, others were here putting up every type of malignant content imaginable.
It sometimes takes the law decades to catch up with technology. Only recently have lawmakers begun to address some issues specific to the internet and social media like “sexting” between children, so-called “revenge porn” and other items. Things become common and their use expands or changes with lightning speed as developers, website owners, and tech gurus all seek to leave a mark, spread their messages, or earn a few bucks. This leaves the rest of us scrambling to keep up. Just as it takes the law a while to catch up, it is taking parents, their children, schools, and counselors a while to catch up to the internet and social media.
Here’s where I become a total party pooper. I don’t think your kids under age 18 need to be let loose onto the internet with no oversight. Just as we don’t simply hand over keys to a car when a child reaches driving age without lessons, study, and practice, I think we as counselors, parents, and educators need to be more mindful of what tools and preparation for social media/internet use kids have before they venture into the webs without guidance.
Those of us that have caught up and know the dangers, know the research that is available on the use of tablets, computers, internet, and smart phones by children, are often publicly maligned when we speak up about it. When I’ve spoken up about the many issues related to these items I’ve been insulted, harassed, and called names.
Unprofessional. Free speech hater. Liberal snow flake. Conservative Bible thumper. Feminist. Feminazi. Unrealistic. You must not have children. If tech was bad for children we’d know more about it by now. The internet isn’t harmful. You can’t police your children 24/7. You’re encouraging parents to snoop. Watching pornography is normal. Boys will be boys. What are parents supposed to do, not have lives? I guess your children are perfect! - The list is a mile long.
I encourage parents to know what their kids are doing online. While there are a host of problems that I see in my work, which are specific to social media and internet, I’ll be expanding on just one today.
Most parents know their children use social media. Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, are places that even parents are going to socialize or look out for their children. I read many blogs and columns from social workers and counselors telling parents how to use those apps. Those articles leave out what to look for and how to look for it. They leave many parents still in the dark, muttering to themselves, “Not my kid!”
Way back when my daughter told me about the Blue Whale Challenge, I looked for posts about it searching for “#bluewhale” and “#bluewhalechallenge”. This turned up over 35,000 pictures on Instagram. These were all self-harm and self-loathing pictures. Very few had any supportive or helpful commentary. Most had comments about “going all the way”, just “doing it and taking the final step” - people were encouraging one another to not be afraid and go ahead and commit suicide.
Instagram in its infinite wisdom (sarcasm, intended) allow users the option to alert them to disturbing posts like these and then Insta sends the user who posted them a message about connecting them with help. That’s it. Super helpful. (More sarcasm.) It’s not just on Instagram, though. Every social media outlet is filled with similar if you look; and kids, teens, and young adults ARE looking.
Enter a science component: social contagion. There absolutely is such a thing as social contagion when it comes to suicide and self-injury. Researchers have studied this mostly in the aftermath of highly publicized suicide and following the suicide deaths of students in various levels of their educational journey. A social contagion exists.
If you’re an 80’s baby like me and you remember the movie Heathers starring Christian Slater, it wasn’t that far off the mark as to one suicide sparking suicidal thoughts and actions in others. (Even though the movie started off with a falsified suicide.)
With the advent of social media and the ability to share pictures, and even talk with anonymity in online communities about self-injury and suicide, the social contagion travels there.
I’ve had participants in online forums like Tumblr insist to me that sharing experiences is helpful. I disagree because people aren’t just sharing experiences and supporting each other. They’re encouraging one another to keep it up. They’re offering tips on how to better hide cuts, they’re encouraging each other to continue what they’re doing, and they’re convincing one another that there is no help. None of that is helpful to recovery in the slightest. If not for these types of group forums on social media the Blue Whale Challenge would’ve never gotten off the ground.
I realize that many readers may believe the word “triggered” gets overused lately; I agree to an extent. In these contexts, it is the best descriptor for the concern here. Images of cuts and burns aren’t helpful to anyone struggling with self-injury or suicidal ideation, they are triggers for similar behavior. Images of emaciated people aren’t motivation for healthy weight loss or recovery from eating disorders, they are triggers for behaviors associated with anorexia and bulimia.
These images, shares, threads, and associated conversations aren’t helpful to people who are struggling with genuine problems. The discussion from much of the sources of these topics and images in social media is discussion that encourages, promotes, and supports illness, harm, and even death.
Sites that parents need to know about and check out:
CreepyPasta (not social media, per se, but a site where horror/gore/murder are written about and read by anyone and everyone)
WattPad (not social media, but a writing site that features a lot of stories with explicit sex, self-harm, incest, pedophilia, and other topics parents and counselors need to be aware of exposure to)
It is important that counselors working with populations who utilize social media are aware of these, the potential for harm and trigger images, and their potential impact on clients. Become familiar with these platforms and others by talking to clients about what ways they engage with others online. Dig in and discover. Search on almost all social media outlets using the hashtag to get a view of what is being swapped by kids and teens (Example: #selfharm). I promise you’ll be concerned enough to examine these issues a bit more closely and begin talking with clients about their participation/possible participation in these forums. Encourage parents to become involved by talking with their kids about social media use. Teach a class on good online hygiene for parents or teens or both. Help parents come up with a plan to keep lines of communication with their children open on these tough topics.
Parents, reach out to your child’s school and find out about what education is provided for students regarding online activity, and ask about what wellness or mental health awareness education is provided. If there isn’t any, tell the school you’d like some to be offered. Get help talking to your children from their school counselor or a mental health counselor. Do your homework. Know how much time your kids spend on social media. Ask who they’re chatting with or what they’re reading. If you see something that concerns you as you peek over your child’s shoulder, speak up, but do it with calm after you’ve had a chance to think and prepare. When a kid is punished for being honest or for being into things that are scary or harmful in your view and you explode with anger, they’ll just get better at hiding it.
Returning to my thought about our lack of anticipation of the negative consequences of the connectivity social media and the internet brought us, let’s examine our thinking on other items that can be harmful to young people. Earning a driver’s license requires hours of classroom education, supervised practice, and testing. A fishing license requires application fees and your trip to the river to fish is supervised by your department of wildlife in your home state. To purchase alcohol you must be 21 and have a photo ID - two things that happen after you’ve spent grades K through 12 having education on alcohol and drug abuse health issues and consequences. Only after that do we allow you to purchase alcohol. Once you begin to purchase and use it, the local and state police, along with state appointed commissions supervise your purchase and use of it.
While I don’t believe that government intervention is necessary for this issue, I do believe that education, discussion, and awareness are. This is one issue where the ball is definitely in the court of the adults: parents, teachers, counselors, and even doctors. It’s up to us to be sure that kids enter their online usage years (happening younger and younger) with the ability to think critically about it and related mental health matters. It’s up to us to let people who are hurting know that recovery is possible, but we can’t do it if we aren’t combating the dangerous messages and content that we are up against and it is hard to combat something you’re not fully aware of.
I encourage my readers to dig in and learn.
Whitney White is a counselor working in Texas in multiple settings with diverse populations. Some of her areas of passion are anxiety, non-suicidal self-injury, and compassion fatigue. With an integrated approach utilizing client strengths, she supports others in achieving their best self. For more information please visit counselingbywhitney.wordpress.com. The thoughts expressed in Whitney’s blogs do not represent her employers.