Principals Blog

Navigating social media and adolescents

This week we conducted a Parent Information Evening on the topic of “Social Media and Mental Health – Time to Get Serious”. We were privileged to hear from Dr Jeremy Blumenthal, adolescent psychiatrist, and David Opat, Vice Principal Student Wellbeing and child psychologist.

Jeremy and David explained that they were not going to focus on the physical dangers associated with social media such as the risks of predation, but rather the emphasis of the presentation was on psychological dangers.

Jeremy stated that he believed that our young people are facing a very significant and problematic moment that is manifestly different from previous generations due to the ubiquitous nature of social media. He mentioned that while every generation seems to bemoan the younger generation this is not where his concern lies.

Jeremy believes that the general prevalence of social media means that a harm minimisation approach is likely to be the most effective solution rather than aiming towards prohibition.

Jeremy and David began their presentation with a focus on normal adolescence. Jeremy explained that the first major task of adolescence is individuation. This is the process of attaining psychological independence from parents.The next major task is to test boundaries.

David explained that there are three types of boundaries that an adolescent can push up against. The first is parents. Where parents are overly elastic in their limits, students may then push up against their school. If the school cannot contain them, the adolescent might push up against the justice system. This can then lead to lifelong problems.

Jeremy then explained that another key normative developmental requirement is differentiation, where a teen will try to separate more superficially from their parents. While this is often mistaken as rebellion, it is actually an expression of healthy development.

Another key stage of adolescence is the exploration of self identity. Jeremy posited that ideologically, socially and politically, identity is in huge flux at this moment in time and this makes it a very precarious time to be a teenager.

Jeremy said that another key feature of normative adolescent development is the crystalisation of the ego whereby a teen’s sense of self begins to resolve into something coherent.

Finally, one of the most important features of adolescence is to find one’s social group. As such, the manner and nature of socialisation with and amongst peers is of key importance at this stage.

David then led a discussion on the adolescent’s experience of social media. He asked audience members to guess the amount of time a typical student would spend accessing or connected to social media. He guessed that it could add up to as much as ten hours a day. He extrapolated that this becomes around 21 weeks a year. He contended that investing such a huge amount of time into something, necessarily has an impact on the psychology of a teen.

David then presented a comparison of pre and post social media lives of teens. He explained that as a child, his typical day allowed him time for social interactions at school and then a break from such interactions at home. He gave a very personal example of a time when he and Jeremy – who have been lifelong friends – were away with their respective families on a holiday in Fiji.

David explained that by the end of the trip, Jeremy and he were sick of one another and had some conflict. This culminated in some unpleasant words at the airport. Two days later after they had both had a chance to process and simmer down, their friendship resumed as if nothing had happened.

By contrast, David speculated that had this occurred in the age of social media, they would have documented their conflict and invited their peers to involve themselves by joining a side. The conflict would likely have spiralled out of control and played out in a very public forum with a series of retaliatory escalations.

This was a poignant example of how much more complex otherwise ordinary interactions can be for contemporary teenagers than those experienced in previous generations.

Jeremy explained that this meant that teen friendships are not as private as they used to be and that damage can be exacerbated through access to social media which he characterised as an “unaccountable, unregulated arena”, where opinions can be expressed and then subjected to a “public circus” where others contribute.

Jeremy suggested that this leads to a constant state of stress, where there is little time for processing. He said that while causation has not been formally established yet, there seems to be a strong correlation between dramatically increased incidents of anxiety and the proliferation of social media.

He said that there are consequent deleterious effects on adolescent development and that teens are increasingly “prisoners of the discourse.”

He suggested that this discourse might be characterised as “Borderline” which is a state with “no dimmer switch”. This means that teens are prone to all-or-nothing thinking about this vital area and lack the nuance to appreciate the complexities of social media interactions.

Next, Jeremy and David explained some neurological basics and articulated that many social media apps are deliberately designed to impact a user’s reward pathways and offer a dopamine hit for engagement. This has led to extreme addiction levels which makes it very hard for teens to disengage.

Jeremy then explained his belief that self esteem was imperative for the emotional and psychological health of an adolescent. He suggested that those with diminished self-esteem are particularly prone to the negative effects of social media. He said that in this forum, approval of the group tends to elevate a teenager’s sense of value. While this can feel great, it is very fragile and can be withdrawn at any time and in an instant.

The subtext of many adolescents’ expressions on social media is asking the question “Am I acceptable or not?”. Jeremy and David suggested that there is huge risk in attributing the answer to an external locus of control.

They suggested that fights, coalitions and conflict have always been a normal part of the adolescent experience but the problem is that much of this is taking place with no parents or teachers to moderate or assist.

David then led a discussion about what parents can do. He gave nine thoughts for parents on what to do. He made the point that it is difficult to start parenting when a child is 15 and this needs to be part of a continuum from childhood.

His thoughts are as follows:

• Believe there is a problem.
• Do your homework – what are the apps out there? What are your children using?
• Open the conversation – “Do you need to display your life to others?”
• Ensure your child understands the implications of their online behaviours.
• Help your child to take a “meta” position to understand the complexities of their social world.
• Decide on the rules.
• Stick to the rules. Use the broken record technique!
• Be authoritative.
• Offer an alternative. Make their lives busy and enriched in other ways.

Jeremy added that there is great value in recruiting like-minded parents to your position. This makes it much easier for you and your child.

I am so grateful to Jeremy and David for sharing their expertise. I hope that this proves helpful in assisting you to navigate this challenging area of contemporary life.