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.