A colleague and I were discussing how our caseload of stressed and anxious young people has increased noticeably since we began practice as psychologists many years ago.
I thought I’d ask for an “expert” opinion from one of my young clients, who should have no reason to suffer from social anxiety and depression, which she unfortunately does. She conforms to the beauty standards Hollywood sets down for its female heroines: tall, slim, long blonde hair, long legs, big blue eyes.She is also an able student, plays sport, is kind, has a caring family and many friends. She would be an expert worth consulting, I thought, for her views on why teenage stress and mood disorders seem to be on the increase.
Teens Under Pressure 24/7
I expected to hear that too much pressure was put on students from parents and teachers to be academically successful, causing those who struggle to feel like losers. Instead, my client surprised me with two words: social media. “You feel you’re being judged all the time … online and then again at school,” she told me.
I understood what she meant. Putting criticisms online is so much easier than saying them face-to-face, where only the cruellest individuals actually enjoy seeing another’s distress up close and personal.
But bitchiness, practiced from a safe distance on an electronic device away from the victim, has become entertainment for millions – and that includes adults! Just read comments on social media sites or go into the “twitterverse” to see how celebrities and so-called responsible adults commonly make scornful personal judgements about others.
Good Manners Don’t Sell
And what about all those reality shows, where harsh criticism and mockery of competitors / housemates are encouraged in order to increase ratings? Good manners don’t sell, unfortunately. That’s why radio shock jocks like Alan Jones and Kyle Sandilands rake in a fortune. Judge Judy has gone viral online. Adults are modeling meanness as entertainment – and thus normalising it for young people.
But the online world can be a double-edged sword. Dishing it out to your peers invites a ‘dissing’ from those targeted, or from their friends. Posts on social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, Bebo, Flickr, MySpace, Tumblr, Snapchat, YouTube (and no doubt more I haven’t heard of yet!), simultaneously fascinate and scare your average teenager. They can’t look away, needing to know what’s being said about them, their personality, their appearance, and true or untrue gossip about their doings.
The Impact of Social Media on Teens
The main social setting for teenagers is school. The majority of students will have been on social media the day or even middle-of–the night before. As they arrive at school, they wonder who has been posting unflattering things about them, all the while considering if the slander they may have seen about others is true? Or if a photo or message they sent privately to a friend somehow went public, thanks to a disloyal friend or trouble-making friend of the friend.
Of course teenagers have an avid interest in the gossip doing the rounds, but with an underlying fear that others are talking cruelly about them. Eleven to fourteen year olds are particularly vulnerable to this fear. When they are out in public areas, such as sporting competitions, shopping malls or parties, they can feel very insecure about who in the crowd they don’t know, might have been informed by what they read on social media about them and be seeing them as “losers”, “sluts”, “ugly”, “fat” – or much worse on currently popular sites. Cruelty on social networking can leave psychological scars for a very long time.
Even with maturity and loving family and friends, it can be difficult to shrug off outrageous claims and insults from people that the individual doesn’t respect anyway.
What can Parents do?
How can parents counteract their child’s stress and anxiety about negative judgements and victimisation by peers online, and consequently, in their daily life?
Banning all access is unrealistic: social media is a big part of teenagers’ lives, and they have all sorts of ways of getting around such a ban, especially if they have access to at least one or more e-devices (which may even be required for their schooling!). Prohibition never works, but regulation does.
Here are some of the things that parents can do when it comes to their teenagers and social media:
1. Foster good communications with you son or daughter from an early age.
Be an ‘active listener’. That means listening sympathetically but calmly to any day-to-day distresses, and teaching your child how to think through possible solutions. Avoid solving their problems for them; instead, encourage them to come up with their own ideas. Our teenagers need to learn this skill for themselves. Seeking advice from wiser heads, of course, is an important component of problem solving.
Some parents who have issues with stress and anxiety themselves, get angry, upset, or make it clear they don’t want to be unsettled by bad news – so their child stops sharing their thoughts, feelings and experiences. By the time they reach adolescence, such a parent is likely to know next to nothing about their teen’s feelings and experiences, so when their child’s social life becomes hell, they may know nothing about it until the school notifies them or they realize something is seriously wrong with their child’s behaviour.
2. Safe social networking.
A safe social networking and games site for 10-14 year olds is Chebo (you can find out more about other safe social networking sites for children in this article). Chebo is recommended by personnel working in Child Protection so any bullying or online predators are eliminated. Make sure you can readily access at all times what your child is watching online.
3. Visit social media with your older children.
Listen to your young people talk about their social media use, and discuss with them why people comment cruelly online, and how it can rebound just as harshly on those who post nasties.
4. Don’t let your child become an online bully.
If you are contacted by the school or another agency about your child posting unacceptable comments or threats online against anyone – act firmly and instantly to take down their page and revert to close supervision.
If your child is brought up in a family that models any and all cultural variations of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, your child is less likely to offend in this way.
5. What goes around, comes around.
Help your child understand that when one criticises, slanders and demeans others online, it invites others to do the same back, so s/he cannot enjoy immunity from harm either. Then anxiety spreads like wildfire from cyber- space to a young person’s real-life social setting.
6. Stay informed.
Schools and government websites such as https://www.staysmartonline.gov.au/kids_and_teens and many others, have lots of advice for parents about safe usage. Well-known psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg has published two lively and useful guides which are worth reading: Beyond Cyberbullying: An Essential Guide For Parenting In The Digital Age, and Real Wired Child: What Parents Need To Know About Kids Online (Tanberg and Carr-Gregg).
7. Limit watching of reality television.
Try to restrict the younger children in your house to kinder reality shows such as Master Chef. With older teens, note when a TV or radio personality is being truly obnoxious and ask them for their opinion about when personal comments should or shouldn’t be publicly expressed. Are judgments made to entertain or are they out to make useful comments?
8. Model good manners.
Manners have a purpose. Expect respect and give it in return. The lesson learned is that you don’t respect people who have no manners – or their opinions! In daily life we avoid people who are scornful and viciously spiteful; avoid them online as well.
9. Encourage reading.
Reading fiction and memoir encourages empathy, by allowing children to experience others’ lives, minds and feelings. It will increase their understanding of how badly someone can be hurt by verbal cruelty.
10. Seek professional help.
If your child or teenager becomes seriously withdrawn, angry, cries or panics often, loses interest in activities that normally are enjoyable – these may all be indications that s/he is not feeling safe and accepted in their social setting, and it may stem from social media.
Get help from the School Counselor or person responsible for pastoral care at your child’s school, or see your GP for a consultation and possible referral to a psychologist experienced in working with young people.
Susanne Gilmour is a Registered Psychologist with nearly twenty years of experience working with children, adolescents and their families, in an educational setting, and is well acquainted with many of the issues – such as social media – which impact on young people today.
Bookings and Fees: To make an appointment with Susanne Gilmour, try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.