Technology and teens: Social media as a social weapon

Depressed Teenage Boy Lying In Bedroom With Pills

I recently met with the principal of a local high school. We were discussing the ways that social media has made the lives of teenagers more complex and perilous.”When I was a kid, if you wanted to spread a rumor about someone, you had to get off your ass and go tell people in person. Now, with the push of a few buttons, everyone at school (and everyone they know) can hear any rumor, any insult. I can’t imagine how much pressure that puts on young people these days, and the damage that can be done so easily.” I said.

“It’s really bad in our schools, I feel like I am constantly trying to put out fires caused by facebook, twitter, snapchat, etc.” responds my friend.

As a mental health professional, particularly one who specializes in eating disorders, the ways that social media affect teenage mental health is of particular concern to me. Statistically, depression in teens rose drastically at the same time that we became saturated with technology. Is technology causing a decline in teenage emotional wellbeing? Well, of course correlation doesn’t prove causation, but there are a lot of variables that are introduced by technology that theoretically would predict a decline in mental health. Social bullying is just one way that teens are emotionally compromised by technology. Teenage social systems are complicated enough as it is, just considering hormonal changes, the struggle to define self and roles, the ever-changing group connections that characterize the formative personality. But the invention of instantaneous public outlets causes the impulsive choices that accompany teen life to turn into very powerful social weapons. It is so easy wreak havoc in someone else’s life, and if that person is poised on an emotional precipice, this could be the instigation of major depression or suicide.

As adults, it is incumbent upon us to educate kids about how social media is also a social weapon. We need to make kids aware of the painful result of thoughtless posting, and teach them how to use social media responsibly. Kids should be encouraged look out for each other on these public forums. If a cruel post is made, I hope my kids stand up to the person being cruel, because teens are particularly susceptible to public chastisement. If the overall consensus was that bullying is unacceptable, kids would think twice before attacking someone on these forums. Social media is also a way to be alerted when a friend is in need of help. Being vigilant to signs that a friend needs adult intervention is a great way to teach your teen to help others. If you are a parent, please encourage your kid’s school to offer a course on social responsibility, emphasizing the importance of the proper use of social media.

Can we afford to leave our kids uneducated, expecting them to navigate the increasingly complex dynamics of our changing society without guidance? And if we do fail to provide education, should we be so surprised that the mental health of our kids continues to decline? I think the deterioration of mental health in kids should be a wake-up call that we, as parents, as adults, need to step up how we prepare kids to maintain emotional health.

Is strength your biggest weakness?

Illustration of a sad superhero

What makes you strong? Think a second about how you define strength. Usually, people conceptualize a ‘strong’ person as someone who is independent, not overwhelmed by emotions, giving to others, protective of others, stabilizing to the social system around them, able to push through to a goal and get things done, focused on achievements, quick to forgive, low-drama, someone who thinks of others before themselves, someone who holds themselves highly accountable, someone with self-discipline. American culture particularly defines strength in these parameters and we are often taught habits at a very young age that perpetuate this view of strength. However, further examination reveals some critical downsides to the psychological and social habits of self-sacrifice and being fixated on achievements.

Your values, and how you define strength and virtue, will guide your interactions within yourself and within your relationships, which in turn determines your ability to meet your human needs. Pursuing “strength” can make a person more likely to sacrifice themselves for the wellbeing of another, protect people at the cost of protecting the self, refuse to ask for help or nurturing, and be unable or unwilling to express tender and vulnerable emotions. These ideals can cause you to overlook the value of experiences so that you may give more energy to the ‘worthier’ pursuit of serving others and achieving outcomes. Your ability to remain psychologically and socially healthy comes from your ability to meet needs mutually between self and others, as well as your ability to both meet your experiential as well as your achievement needs. Being too heavily focused on the needs of others and the achievements in your life can lead to unmet needs in yourself and a lack of experiential nurturing.

Remaining in balance requires you to allow yourself to understand and nurture your needs and to invite others to understand and nurture your needs. If achievements and doing for others is the only worthy goal, the only good use of available time and energy, what happens to your own sense of self-worth? If you always sacrifice yourself for someone else’s wellbeing (or convenience) what does that teach you about your own value? If you always expect yourself to be more accountable to others than they are to you, what does that do to your ability to remain safe in relationships? If you define your worth solely by the goals you accomplish and how much you ‘get done’, what does that say about the value of your living experience? Is being ‘strong’ getting you closer to loving yourself, if self-love is defined by the act of placing your needs as a priority in the greater social scheme? Are you merely defined by what you can do to serve and achieve, and if so wouldn’t you be better off having been born a robot?

Be careful with your ‘strength’. Bottom line, you believe everything you do. Chronic self-sacrifice and unemotional achievement-focus leads you to lose self-worth, and it leads to unmet needs. Unmet needs lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD, loss of relationship security and intimacy. There is no weaker way to be than caught in the ‘strength trap’.

Use the platinum rule as often as you us the golden rule. What’s the platinum rule? Treat yourself as well as you would someone else, and expect from them what you would give to them. Be fair to yourself as you are to those around you. Do unto self as you would do unto others.

About the author

Brett McDonald, M.S.  Author

Brett McDonald, M.S.,  founder of dragonflymind.org, writes her posts based on the unifying theme of Relational Exchange Therapy. A mental health therapist with over 10 years experience, she created RET as a new modality for treatment of eating disorders, and she has since found strong applications for its use with a variety of mental health and social issues. Brett is the clinical director of The Dragonfly Retreat, where she and her partner, Sifu Joseph Simonet, work jointly to lead people suffering from eating disorders and other mental illness out of the symptom trap and onto the road of recovery. Brett is a regular columnist for Personal Development Cafe, and she is in the process of writing a series of books about Relational Exchange Therapy. To read more about RET, visit her                                 website,                          thedragonflyretreat,com. (go to philosopy tab, “What is RET?)