In these post pandemic times, it would be remiss to underestimate the lifeline that social media platforms can be, when physical proximity is not an option. The impact of the pandemic, especially for those living alone or clinically vulnerable would have been even more catastrophic in terms of mental health without these web-based platforms we use to share and connect.
Connection is important, simply put, as humans we need it. Connecting with others on a physical and emotional level can improve our health and overall well-being. For relatives and friends living apart it allows instant updates on important milestones like births, weddings, anniversaries and deaths. It allows us to gain new perspectives and insight from people we might never ordinarily meet and to become more aware of global issues in a way that was not possible before. It allows us to become aware of opportunities and link in with others to advance our careers, attend education. So social media with its ability to connect people across great geographical or cultural distance is surely a good thing, right?
Well, while there are definite benefits, there are problems too. In relation to teenagers there is a tendency to treat the online and offline world as seamless. What happens in one world is transferred to the other. Teenagers can no longer leave their problems at the proverbial or in this case literal door. Bullying and unwanted attention regularly cross over the threshold between school and home. At a time when maturing brains are most wired to take risks, strangers creep silently and invisibly through WIFI routers into teenage bedrooms.
Of further concern is the idea that social media can exacerbate mental health issues, this is particularly so for issues like self-harm or anorexia. Part of the way in which this happens is via what is termed as algorithmic radicalisation. Social media platforms are designed to keep eyes on screen so what you look at directly influences the types of material you are shown. For example, if a young person searches ‘shape-wear’ or healthy eating, they’ll be shown more and more media content of the same kind to encourage continued use. The same will happen if a young person is curious about self-harm, if they search around this, they will then see more images relating to this ‘interest’. It’s not difficult to see how repeated exposure to content around body image or self-harm could contribute to a young person developing a ‘radicalised’ position on such issues.
Social media, however, is here to stay and it is also beneficial in some important ways. So, if prohibition is not the answer, what is? How do we help the young people in our care take what is good from social media and the online world and circumvent that which will do them harm?
Educating young people about online harm is important and forms part of our work in the Dating Detox (see Session 6), but it’s not the only approach. Teaching young people to have good self esteem and healthy boundaries is also vital to protecting them from harm. Helping young people to set boundaries around themselves is an important part of helping them to protect themselves physically and emotionally. This is an important skill both on and offline. The internet and social media are neither inherently good nor bad, they are tools however, that can be used by those that wish to exploit others.
Unfortunately, those most vulnerable to exploitation are young people who have grown up in a family of origin where sense of self is eroded, choices are not allowed, and boundaries have been violated. While the blame should always squarely and firmly lie with the perpetrators, we can help young people strengthen their defences. Encouraging young people to speak up when something is not ok with them, modelling to young people that you will listen when they say no to things or when something makes them feel uncomfortable. All these things help them to build trust in themselves and encourage and a sense of identity and self that is strong enough to know when something does not feel right. By creating a relationship in which the young person feels respected by you and trusts that you value their rights as an individual you also increase the possibility, they will speak to you about things that are troubling them, knowing that you will seek to advocate for their choices as much as safety will allow. If you’re interested in finding out more and have access to Dating Detox you can find more about boundary setting in Session 3 of the toolkit.