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Social Media Prevalence
In the early days of the Internet, social media was limited to services such as e-mails, AOL Instant Messenger, chatrooms, and webforums. Today, adolescents are faced with a staggering selection of social media outlets, ranging from Facebook to Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and hundreds of other options. Never before has a generation been so closely connected to their peers, families, and strangers through the digital world. As parents and professionals who work with adolescents in this digital age, we need to be informed and realistic about the impact that these new forms of media have on adolescents, so that we can help them to navigate the world that they live in.
Screen Time Fears
Parents of young people in the digital age are bombarded with warnings from the media. Psychologists warn that phones are making kids unhappy, reporters worry that smartphone use has destroyed a generation, and scientists advise that screens might be making kids obese. Are these valid concerns, or knee-jerk reactions to a technological generation which is advancing faster than scientific and sociological studies can keep up with? Recent studies seem to lean heavily on assumptions of causation when studying social media outcomes in adolescents. The dangers of defining teens’ lives by only their health issues and phone usage statistics need to be taken seriously.
The research is ongoing, and often conflicting. A study by Cornell University shows that using Facebook boosts self-esteem, while Flinders University reported that girls using social media had poor self-esteem. The explanation for conflicts may be that the headlines and articles are often over-simplified; while Cornell studied teens viewing their own profiles, Flinders focused on girls posting weight-loss progress pictures. Noticing the discrepancies between studies, however, is not something that our Internet-trained minds are prone to do. We see, we click, we skim, and then, too often, we panic. As a parent or someone who works with teens, to read headlines is to feel a sense of panic: what is happening to the next generation?
Many different aspects of an adolescent’s life are impacted by growing up in a technological age. Adolescents forming their identities through an online world are participating in similar experiential activities that the generations before them have, but the means and mode of doing so have changed (boyd, 2015). The issues surrounding digital natives have been topics of discussion among various professionals as well as parents for several years (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008). Technology use among teens is typically cause for alarmist responses, with few exceptions taking a step back to examine what a digital life looks like for someone who has grown up with technology at hand.
This topic grows quickly–once you realize how completely our culture has changed through the use of technology, it becomes apparent that all aspects of life and development have been altered, as well. As an example, exploring and negotiating sexual relationships online is a new world that only digital natives know as part of their normal development. While adults certainly develop online sexual relationships with others, I would argue that this is an extension of behaviors that were first learned in real-life experiences for all digital immigrants, carried out in a new forum. Digital natives, however, may be experiencing and exploring their sexuality initially online, before having any real-life experiences. Adolescent online sexuality, however, is severely under-studied. While many studies exist regarding the sexual behaviors of teens, there is little or no mention of the Internet as a space where teens go to explore their sexual development with peers (Lindberg, et al, 2008, Bersamin et al., 2006, Boekeloo & Howard, 2002, Remez, 2000, Bruckner & Bearman, 2005). Adolescents exploring their sexuality initially online are infrequently discussed, until issues of sexual predators lurking on the Internet are mentioned. The normal peer-to-peer experiences of adolescence, however, must be recognized as having moved into a virtual realm, at least partially. Manago, et al. (2014), discuss the sexual identity that can be formed online with peers, away from the eyes of parents and real-life peer groups.
In my chapter of The Social Work and Sexual Trauma Casebook: Phenomenological Perspectives (2018), I explore the concept of virtual trauma, the social construction of trauma (Fassin & Rechtman, 2009) and the effects of a potentially traumatic event when it occurs online, asking practitioners to examine their own concepts of trauma and the culture of a digital native before assigning ‘victim’ status to those who have had an experience online. In his book, The Culture of Fear, Barry Glassner highlights the media and policy makers’ indoctrination of children and parents that the world is a dangerous place full of deviants, and that harm lurks around every corner (Glassner, 1999). Fears and dangers have only become more exaggerated with the conception of the Internet hosting and hiding pedophiles and kidnappers, waiting for an opportunity to virtually ‘pounce’ on unsuspecting children.
The concept of fearing for safety is not new; but the perceived reach and means of those who would do us harm is all too new, and for most, unknown. I would argue that with access to information, the widespread and hazardous use of social media as a news source, and innumerable people connected online who would have had no contact in the past, our culture of fear has intensified. The fear culture has also, however, followed in the same patterns that have been present in any time that a new form of media has been introduced to our culture. Understanding the historical background is essential for those wanting to understand and adapt to the socially-constructed, cyclical nature of our responses to new technology.
Social Construction & Communication Technology
Changes in the ways we communicate have, historically, always led to fears and concerns for the generation after ours. In most cases, the panic subsides and the general population is left with new technologies to improve upon and relatively little harm done to them in the process. In their book, A Social History of the Media, Asa Briggs & Peter Burke note the similarities in reactions to technology throughout history and write that “denunciations of new media follow a similar pattern, whether the object of these denunciations is television or the Internet” (Briggs & Burke, 2010). Though the changes continue, it seems hard for humanity to remember that we went on from each invention and forgot what it was to live without them.
What now? Responding to the Cycle of our Digital Lives
As demonstrated through historical context, panic is a normal and expected response to new technological advancements. The difference in our modern world is the speed at which the changes occur. One scholar uses Moore’s Law to discuss social media, citing that according to the law, every eighteen to twenty-four months previous technologies are outdated and capabilities have doubled (Thompson, 2011). Comparing this speed to the previous revolutions in technology, we can see why we may feel overwhelmed by change. I would argue that this increase in speed does not modify the natural fear responses we have, but does magnify them due to the frequency at which the response occurs.
The cycle follows the same fear-response cycle, and we, as parents and professionals, need awareness that this cycle is occurring; once recognized, we can respond to the cycle in ways which not only help young people navigate their digital worlds safely and effectively, but also give them the space needed for their voices and experiences to be heard and acknowledged.
I have developed a tool, which I’ve called “The Mindful Cycle of Digital Lives,” to help parents and professionals increase their own awareness of the natural cycle of fear and response. I propose that once aware, we do not need to attempt to break the cycle, but rather to work within it to develop healthy relationships with our use of technology. These phases are guidelines, based on clinical experiences with clients and families struggling to find balance in their lives and homes between control of and respect for their young people’s experiences online.
A printable version which includes brief descriptions of each part of the cycle can be found in the Tools section of this site.
Initial fear & panic
Recognize that hesitation, distrust, and fear responses are normal when we’re presented with a new type of technology. We’re humans: change makes us uncomfortable.
Research and evaluation
Research means doing more than reading an article on social media or hearing from a friend. Conduct your own investigation. Consider trying the new technology for yourself.
Too often, discussions become lectures to young people. Focus on listening to them. Hear how they want to use technology, what value it holds for them, and consider their opinions.
Not all new technology is inherently bad, but it is not necessarily good, either–or a good fit for you and your family. Collect your research coupled with discussion, and decide if it fits in with your ideal lifestyle.
Integration and Mindful Use of technology
If the technology meets your criteria for being a part of your life, discuss and decide how it can be used effectively and mindfully. I’ve created a resource with tips for evaluating consumption of digital media that can be found here.
Re-evaluation & Flexibility
Too often, we end up sticking to rules that we have set, even when they are no longer working for us. Allow yourself space for change in guidelines as ages, uses and needs also change.