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Social media, its promises and perils

by Linda Smith Brown |

Many parents are concerned about what all that phone time is doing to their children, and wonder how best to deal with it

Social media usage is a part of virtually every adolescent’s life in this country and yet little is known about its effects on young, developing brains, despite studies here and there.

What is not up for debate is the pervasive presence of social media in young lives. According to a Pew Research study, up to 95% of American youth ages 13 to 17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly.” Nearly 40% of children ages 8 to 12 use social media.

‘Conversations about the phone come up in every therapy session I’ve had with parents and their children’
— Kim Scardina

Given that, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently released a 19-page advisory in which he expressed concerns about the “ample indicators that social media can … have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.” Among the indicators he cited are adolescent depression and anxiety caused in part by exposure to cyberbullying, poor self-image, normalization of aberrant and unhealthy behaviors, and poor sleep at a critical time.

Digital relationships with strangers via social media are a danger for any age group, meanwhile, but nearly six in 10 adolescent girls say they’ve been contacted by a stranger through social media in ways that make them feel uncomfortable, the advisory reported.

Murthy called for more research on the subject, more parental oversight, more forceful regulatory action from governments at every level, and self-policing by technology companies to safeguard children — by enforcing minimum age limits for use of their platforms, for example.

Meanwhile, for the first time ever, the American Psychological Association has issued a social media guide for school officials, legislators and policymakers, tech entrepreneurs and moms and dads.

Kim Scardina, LCPC, a therapist at Peoria’s Carle Health, points out there is no such diagnosis as social media adjustment disorder. “But conversations about the phone come up in every therapy session I’ve had with parents and their children,” she said.

Kim Scardina, LCPC, a therapist at Peoria’s Carle Health
Kim Scardina, LCPC, a therapist at Peoria’s Carle Health (photo by Ron Johnson)

Replacing In-Person With On-Line

Caitlin Scott, clinical director with Family Core in Peoria, said she is concerned about how social media impacts the adolescent’s ability to communicate in person.

“I think that social media becomes a replacement activity for interacting and I think there is a loss of communication development, social skill development, the ability to develop empathy by seeing people’s facial expressions, reading their non-verbals, being able to communicate back and forth,” she said.

Caitlin Scott, clinical director with Family Core
Caitlin Scott, clinical director with Family Core (photo by Ron Johnson)

“We have to help kids understand it is good for you to have in-person social interaction. It is good for you to get outside and do things without your phone. It is good for you to have relationships with people outside of the internet,” said Scott. “So how we get kids to buy into that is the big question.”

The Temptation to Post

“What we worry about is the impulsivity that already lies within teens,” said Scardina. “Because of who they are, their hormones, they’re testing a lot of things out with their identity, but those images … can be saved forever with a screen shot.

“The teen age group is not always concerned about consequences in the future, like adults are.”

Sending something inappropriate may have repercussions that are more immediate.

“An individual thinks they’re just sending an attractive-looking picture,” said Scardina. “But then it gets sent around. By the next day, everybody at school, including their teachers, may have seen that picture.”

At that point, a previously well-adjusted young social media user is suddenly sorting out unintended consequences, which could be traumatic, bringing on mental health issues.

The Dopamine Surge

The young brain appears to be quite sensitive to the effects of the neurotransmitter called dopamine. The human body makes its own dopamine, which allows a person to feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation.

‘We’re not supposed to be getting that constant flood of dopamine’
— Kim Scardina

“Getting likes on your social media post is the equivalent of someone in real-life saying, ‘Hey, great job,’ or ‘Hey, I like your shirt,’” said Scott. “It’s a way of defining self-worth in adolescence. Some see it as ‘I’m only as good as how many likes I get,’” said Scott.

That constant dopamine boost can be addictive, said Scardina.

“Social media can provide that sense of reward again and again. Real life doesn’t provide that and it’s not supposed to,” she said. “We’re not supposed to be getting that constant flood of dopamine. Real life is supposed to be calmer than that, but social media certainly does make everything else seem boring.”

Physical Safety

The Center for Prevention of Abuse provides adolescent education programs about social media and staying safe.

Center CEO Carol Merna says “sextortion” is very prevalent on social media.

“Sextortion is where kids or even grownups will unknowingly provide very inappropriate pictures online and they become blackmailed,” said Merna. “We have children in therapy here who were caught up in it. It causes trauma. It’s fairly common.”

Once predators have the inappropriate photographs, they can threaten to share them with friends and family.

“It increases the suicide rate tremendously, with the fear and anxiety that it puts in young people that they have done something wrong,” said Merna. “They don’t realize they can get help.”

Merna emphasizes that young people need to know this criminal behavior is not their fault.

“Sextortion is something that the FBI is very interested in investigating,” she said. “Calling local law enforcement is very important and keeping copies of all the communication that’s taken place.

“We want our kids to go and safely explore the world and be able to use the internet to do it, but it’s a dangerous place.”

The Center is often invited to schools to present social media safety programs, said Merna. “Everything we do is age-appropriate and evidence-based.”

Social media is currently part of the Center’s anti-bullying message, which begins with a definition. “That’s where the conversation starts,” said Merna. “Then it can go much further, when it’s age-appropriate, to include kids sharing nudes with each other and helping students understand those pictures live forever when they’re online.

‘If you wouldn’t do something in person, don’t do it online’
— Carol Merna

“Many people think it’s that panel van that’s going to come up and snatch their child,” which is a rare occurrence, when it’s “much easier to do something anonymously, to make up an identity, approach somebody online and then dupe them into doing something,” said Merna.

Her recommendation to parents is “keep talking to your kids. Talk about inappropriate conduct. Talk about inappropriate contact and talk about your values. If you wouldn’t do something in person, don’t do it online. Don’t give out your personal information. Enjoy the entertainment factors. Enjoy the tools we’ve been given for learning, but guard yourself and be safe.”

Another issue is human trafficking.

“It’s in every corner of the country and it’s across the globe. Peoria is no different, and it does happen here,” said Merna, adding that social media often is where it starts.

What’s a Parent to Do?

“The advice I would give to parents is to start off your child’s social media use with restrictions,” said Scardina. “Too often parents start it off with ‘we trust our child and they’ve grown up with technology.’ But then when you have to take something away, it becomes a battle.”

Scardina recommends that strict boundaries be the default position.

“They have to earn your trust with it,” she said. “Talk about … the amount of time on the phone, the parents keeping the phone until homework is done, parents having the phone’s password or the phone not having a password, so the parents can search it at any time.”

She suggests parents use monitoring apps that limit what their child can search for online and that only the adults can download.

Merna also is a strong advocate for monitoring youth social media use, and for parents being parents.

“Hopefully, kids are being talked to early and often, and … there’s been an honest and open environment created,” she said. “When you talk about your values, kids know what the family considers to be right and what’s wrong. That’s going to last all the way up until they have kids of their own.”

“We have to understand that social media is here. It is not going anywhere and part of what we’re going to have to do is adjust to the environment where social media is part of the conversation,” said Scott. “So, what do we do about navigating it versus trying to eliminate it?”

Linda Smith Brown

Linda Smith Brown

is a 37-year veteran of the newspaper industry, retiring as publisher of Times Newspapers in the Peoria area

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