Courtney was the kind of 10th grade client that I completely enjoyed. She was cute, clever and motivated. So when she began to have an issue that ballooned into a crisis, I was a bit surprised. Her parents found out that she had shared a nude picture with a boy she knew, and he then proceeded to share it with the whole school. The following week, Courtney landed in the hospital from sheer humiliation. Thankfully, Courtney was able to get immediate help and went on to lead a productive life -- forever scarred by her simple mistake, blamed and mortified for what another kid didn’t yet understand about privacy.
It is so convenient for friends, family, therapists, teachers and parents to say, social media be damned, especially after an episode like Courtney’s. I agree with what they’re saying, after all, it’s legitimate to protect your children from porn, abuse, catfishing, danger and predators. My biggest parenting regret is not removing the phones from their hands at 10p, like many parents do. Sleep is the number one predictor of functioning in my book and too many kids simply cannot resist the allure of talking to their friends all night.
I worked for early internet start-ups in the health and wellness space for some time, so I cannot readily cast away its benefits. Imagine you had breast cancer in 1998 and wanted to meet others going through the same thing - we invented that! At iVillage.com we developed online support forums for millions of cancer patients! There was no one we couldn’t reach, solving the problem of mental health access for the first time. For me and thousands of others the internet provided research, group support, organizational capabilities like syncing calendars, and so much more - a meetup with my best friend from 4th grade, for example. (https://www.nbc26.com/news/local-news/the-complex-relationship-between-social-media-and-mental-health#:~:text=Social%20media%20can%20be%20a%20virtual%20window%20into%20people%27s%20lives,cause%20more%20harm%20than%20good)
We know the stats on texting (teen girls - 80 texts per day! - https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2010/04/28/teen-girls-text-more-than-boys/) - and girls do it far more than boys. Is texting bad? Not really if it’s used for, “honey I forgot the milk, be home in 10.” But my middle school clients, always girls, spend entire sessions reading their text exchanges to me. According to Lisa Damour, my favorite author on this subject,
“Texting is a very powerful way to have conversations with boys, and there’s no shame in that,” says Dr. Damour. “As long as kids are talking about their feelings, it doesn’t matter to me how it’s happening,” --(https://grownandflown.com/lisa-damour-get-teen-boys-open-up-deep-conversation/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CTexting%20is%20a%20very%20powerful,Damour%20says.)
Middle schoolers are trying to learn how to communicate, and patients like Courtney typically do a damn good job of it. It enables them to clarify their own voice, sometimes pause (leave “unread”), and then work through relational drama without the terror of having to say it face to face. It seems like a skill worth having. In therapy with teens, it turns out, we need to help them navigate, not shut down.
In high school, girls get busy with activities, sports and grades. The competition where I live (near NYC) is fierce. Knowingly or not, they vie for hierarchy among peers that can stretch from just being a bad-ass to being the smartest or dumbest or prettiest in the class. Much of their doom scrolling leads to listlessness, boredom and shorter attention spans. But it also helps them learn fact from fiction and gain judgment: view a painting for an art class, or see a citation from a real judge on the supreme court, or watch a science experiment from their living rooms. Looking at others’ luxury vacations creates “FOMO” and yet the phone can also be a godsend to organize and color code your schedule for a kid with dyslexia, for example. Some kids use it to set alarms for their meds and their mindfulness. One kid from my town created a travel app that made him enough money to go to MIT. Another client uses the phone to check her blood sugar and her diet for type I diabetes. Still another is using an app designed for CBT-i (cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia).
As for beyond high school, I had a client, Darien, who couldn’t write an email after graduating from an ivy league school, that’s how paralyzed she was. Now she works at a law firm. Learning to live with our technology might be a good idea. Apps that show me my daily usage are a bit scary - in the service of “I’m working” I have literally lost hours of my life, and my vision. (I actually need special glasses to help focus). Addiction is real and video gaming can really suck your soul, especially if it’s done all night.
Which social media (https://seopressor.com/social-media-marketing/types-of-social-media/) is all bad? Facebook has fake ads. But they have controls. Instagram and TikToc have provocative videos, they too have controls. Snapchat is short acting, like a teen taking one drink at a party. It’s not good, but it won’t last. What about Twitter, the adult version of a bad playdate. But teens can also learn whom to trust. What is the difference between a reputable news outlet and a screeching rant by an excommunicated politician? Let’s find out. One day, they might even make a career of it.
What about dating sites for young adult clients? How does that cause harm? Ghosting has never been so easy. Do you delete it and stop trying? Sure you could meet someone at the local bar, or through a friend of a friend. Enter Covid-19, and dependency on alcohol, suddenly Hinge doesn't sound so bad. What’s wrong with LinkedIn? I get notifications from them every day for my dream job. Yet how many people really did land their dream job this way? Linking to everyone I have ever worked with helps me out. It helps me remember what my value is when I’m too flummoxed to present myself.
As a therapist we must stay open to growth and potential. We are taught not to impose our beliefs. So if my patient is on social media all day and night what would be more appropriate - to scold her and instruct the parents to remove all screens, or perhaps teach her that rest is critical to development, as is exercise, diet, spirituality and creativity (eg. self care). One of my clients is doing an online masters program in a special kind of painting that she posts weekly on Instagram. Because she has a significant trauma history, her present situation doesn’t allow for her to visit museums or lectures or art studio classes. But she can paint and post and maybe one day sell those paintings online. What gives her hope is the freedom to expose her work to the world without having to leave her room. Or the client who is ill and lives in a rural setting - she can talk to her BFF (and me) without having to drive. These are the many ways a young, isolated person may reframe the online world as an adaptation to her struggles, rather than the enemy.
No one is suggesting that you stalk your ex and go through his emails, or engage in illegal/aggressive or shameful bullying, or worse. What I say to my colleagues who work with young people is this - save your judgment and let’s figure out what the pitfalls and potential are in each situation, then help our clients to filter-in what is meaningful, useful and practical for their communities; and filter-out what doesn’t serve them.