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Counseling Kids in a Social Media World

By Sharon Powers | August 2018

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Rising rates of teen depression and suicide with the ubiquity of technology poses a million-dollar question: Is the link between declining childhood mental health and digital usage a correlative or causal relationship? Surely, there’s something happening between the two trends. Digital likes instead of a heartfelt conversation, carefully crafted online personas, and the fear of missing out (FOMO) mentality are shaping kids in ways we are trying to unravel.
Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University is on the forefront of this research and has been tracking trends for the past 25 years. She has explored this in her book, “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completed Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us.” In an article for Psychology Today, Twenge writes, “In my analyses...teens who spent more time on screens were less happy, more depressed, and had more risk factors for suicide.”
Common Sense Media has reported Twenge’s findings with eighth graders: “Heavy [screen] users are 56 percent more likely to say they are unhappy; 27 percent more likely to be depressed; and 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide.” Here’s where the work of school counselors is essential.
Technology has infiltrated and transformed how kids view themselves and interact with others. This impacts self-esteem, relationships, communication, and coping skills. Cyberbullying, online harassment and pressure from the “sexting culture” add another layer to this complicated web. Let’s not forget the implications of distracted parenting on childhood development, where again technology is the culprit.
Common Sense Media found that kids ages eight to 18 spend spend around six to nine hours a day consuming media. How can all that screen time not impact development? This leaves less time to spend on being a kid.
Perhaps what is most relevant to work with students is that signs and predictors of depression and other mental health disorders are likely to manifest in digital behavior. This could result in earlier detection and subsequent treatment of disorders like depression.
Self-Esteem and Selfies
For healthy self-esteem to form, positive feelings toward oneself must be cultivated from within. Social media provides a platform for users to seek approval and affirmation and allows self-worth to be assessed based on input from others. Then there’s the comparing oneself to peers simply based on an online persona. Impressionable kids take note of how they stack up against other kids in looks, athleticism, academic performance and social status.
The desire to capture an idyllic selfie has led some people to snap photos of themselves in precarious situations like on train tracks or on the edge of a cliff. The continuous scrutinization of one’s physical attributes can also foster personal dissatisfaction, when you can’t accept who you are and the way you look.
Although selfie culture might seem like a temporary, harmless trend, concerns arise when these channels don’t produce the desired effect. Negative selfie feedback or the absence of feedback could be deflating to a kid whose self-esteem is on shaky ground.
School counselors can find opportunities to help students tap into their strengths and form positive opinions of self that are not as dependent on external affirmation, while also helping students understand the limitations of social media in fueling self-esteem.
Your Brain on Likes
All of us who own technology can appreciate its addictive properties. The reward center of a teen’s brain is activated by social media “likes.” The feel good effects of a “like” have been compared to the brain response when eating chocolate or winning money, the Association for Psychological Science reported. This means kids have instant access to a dopamine-inducing activity while their brains are still very much under construction. Helping parents establish time limits for technology has many benefits.
As humans, we crave social connectivity and that desire to belong is even more intense for a child and adolescent. Technology has major implications when it comes to communication skills and face-to-face interactions. We have to make sure our students understand that forming an emotional connection with a friend requires an exchange of communication that happens through facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and mutual self-disclosure.
Without these communication building blocks, empathy and intimacy will fall short. For students who experience social anxiety, social media provides a safe shield for interaction, but can further intensify fear about in-person interactions.
How School Counselors Can Support Students
  • Bring attention and awareness to the positive and negative impacts of technology and social media.
  • Teach students to be deliberate about their social media activity.
  • Help students understand when a person may need help online and what steps to take when they suspect someone may be in danger.
  • Educate students on the limitations of social media and technology.
  • Educate parents on the importance of modeling a healthy relationship with technology and social media.
  • Encourage students and families to unplug and take note of how they feel.
  • Help students sharpen their in-person social skills.
The implications of technology and social medias are vast and complicated, but we school counselors must continually examine the ever-changing world of our students. All the domains we address as school counselors –social/emotional, academic and career – will transcend the digital landscape. As we support the mental health, self-esteem and healthy relationships of our students, viewing these issues through our students’ lens will further enhance the work we do.
Sharon Powers is a school counselor with Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax County, Va. She recently wrote about this topic for ASCA School Counselor magazine and presented about it at the 2017 ASCA Annual Conference.