I currently work in a high school and have previously experience in a homeless youth center, a wilderness program for adolescents, private practice, and an elementary school. I still consider myself to be young. I graduated and began practicing recently and have yet to hit 30. I like to think that I have some degree of understanding of the world which children and adolescents inhabit are like. After all, I grew up on the original 150 Pokemon, had early social media (Myspace), and had a cell phone in high school. Despite this, my clients experience a world that is often foreign to me and I believe the world around us to be rapidly changing.
Some of the major culprits of this change are the accessibility of social media and general use of the internet. These forces have alter and shape the lived experience of most of my clients. They may become increasingly anxious the longer they’re left “unread” as minds run amok, considering what others are doing or talking to who are so much more important than them. It only takes a few seconds to respond to a message – right? Or, they might mistake suspicion for trust in their relationships by sharing social media passwords to scour significant other’s feeds to reassure themselves that everything is okay. If they’re willing to send me their passwords they can’t be hiding anything – right? Self-worth is often developed or destroyed by the number of ‘likes’ they’ve gotten from their posts and who they’re from.
Feeding this anxiety is simple – the smart phone is always at hand, and friends’ availability and activity is constantly available and updated. In addition to the unspoken contract that messages should be responded to instantly, another clause says that one should remain positive on social media and to paint an often skewed picture of oneself. Despite these negative effects, many clients have never experienced anything else and are unaware of their altered world and struggle to lessen their social media use. The relief as suspicions are disconfirmed or the dopamine reward of getting a ‘like’ override the history of anxiety associated with social media use. As I write this, I’m struck by the similarity to the psychology of slot machines.
In many ways, social media mimics substance use disorders – inability to cut down on use, increased use despite negative consequences (namely social and academics in my school), withdrawal (anxiety of being ‘unread’), and even tolerance (students feel a need to post more to match peers’ increased use to maintain social status). I would not be surprised at all to learn in a few years that it looks physiologically similar to substance abuse or process addictions. None of this speaks yet to the effects of social media on young people’s ability to communicate with one another in person.
This stymied development of interpersonal skills was one of the things that struck me when I initially worked in wilderness therapy. Students’ often experienced anxiety as they were separated from their devices initially, then struggled to engage with others in-person, and after 3 weeks or so began developing more appropriate interactions with each other and staff. They learned to share their feelings of triumph and more importantly – those of fear and failure. The relationships formed in wilderness were created through a holistic understanding of one another. It wasn’t easy, took time, effort, and often tears – but it was healthy.
Unfortunately, this is not likely to be a feasible experience for many clients. Given that, I’ll continue working with adolescents as they navigate the caustic world that has been their native environment. But resolving this will not be done by 1:1 work with counselors and clients. It is a societal issue, and one that is growing in its malevolence. Recently, an ex-Facebook executive claimed social media was “tearing apart the fabric of society” and Facebook has gone as far to acknowledge its use has been correlated with mental health issues. Their suggestion to fix this was to modify how social media is used and to use it more. Somehow, I doubt this will work.
This change will require the work of mental health professionals and researchers to raise awareness of the dangers through whatever platform we have available. It will take place as parents educate their children and limit their use. Through school faculty who have direct access to students and can develop and enforce school policy. Regardless of who the agent is, we all have a role to play in addressing the issue because it is one that affects us all.
Ben Hearn is a new professional who is currently working as a school-based counselor. He is passionate about working with trauma and enjoys applying the fields of neuroscience, philosophy, ethics, and psychopharmacology to counseling practice.