Sunday 23 April 2017

Irish psychotherapist on the impact of social media on teens: 'They're presenting with clinical levels of anxiety that are having a debilitating impact on their lives'

Teenagers need true, meaningful connections with their peers, and while the Internet has a positive contribution to make, they need to go beyond the computer screen, writes our expert

Joanna Fortune says teens today live their lives in a very public way
Joanna Fortune says teens today live their lives in a very public way

Joanna Fortune

We are now looking at the first generation in our society who will never get to say "before the internet", a generation growing up and developing while being "switched on 24:7". The average teenager will check their social media upwards of 60 times a day, and we cannot underestimate the impact on the developing adolescent brain of being switched on 24:7.

I do school talks in secondary schools, and, without exception, regardless of the school I am in around the country, when I ask for a show of hands from the students whether the first thing they do when they open their eyes is check their phones and the last thing they do at night before closing their eyes is check their phones, I get 100pc hands going up.

Neurologists talk about the impact white light has on the brain when trying to sleep, physiotherapists talk about people presenting with neck and thumb strain from looking down at and scrolling on a phone all day, but there is also an emotional deprivation that goes with this. While we are "connected" 24:7, we have never been more disconnected within our relationships. Teenagers might be in constant communication with their peers without actually opening their mouths to speak a word or locking eyes with anyone. This is not true, meaningful connection in the way we all, as humans, need to grow and develop. When I communicate like this I am not looking into the eyes or face of the person I am talking to. I do not get to see their emotional response to what I say and process that what I am saying is having an emotional effect on the other person that I am, in some way at least, responsible for. Be aware of your own online behaviour and how often your teenager looks to you and finds you looking down at your screen. Lead by positive example.

Also, teenagers are living their lives, their every waking thought and action, in a very public way and all of their personal data is being stored on privately owned servers, owned by large profit-making commercial entities. I am not opposed to the Internet. I do believe the pros outweigh the cons and it is a very important part of society. However, I do oppose the premature adultification and short-circuiting of development in children and the consequences for this are far-reaching and impact on all of us.

In my clinical practice, I am seeing increasing referrals of teenagers presenting with clinical levels of anxiety that are having a debilitating impact on their lives. Incidences of self-harm and eating-disordered behaviour are also on the rise. It is my hypothesis that in an increasingly virtual world, teenagers are struggling to cope with the day-to-day highs and lows of life in the real world, and that, for some teenagers, the need to feel real is enacted on the body in the form of self-harm or eating disorder.

Online, everything and everyone looks their very best. Every image and video is edited, filtered, photoshopped to perfection before it is offered to the world with hashtags attached to draw your attention to specific elements of the post. It is very difficult to feel that you are good enough when you compare yourself to what is seemingly a casual post by an online influencer but actually has been carefully put together. But we now have a generation of young adolescents who are engaged in specialised waxing, spray tans, professional hair extensions, protein shakes for gym workouts, weights in their bedrooms and calorie/macro counted diets. What they are worth is now measured by how they look on the outside. This high emotional charge on the physical body comes at a significant cost for the inner emotional world.

Neuroimaging scans show that the area of the teenage brain that is well developed is the nucleus accumbens, which is the area associated with pleasure and reward-seeking drives. This explains a lot of what we would call "typical teenage behaviour", which is often about taking risks.

Teens need to take positive risks so that they can learn and develop independent thinking. Positive risk taking has been linked to higher levels of self-esteem and decreased risk of self-harm/eating disorders/substance abuse.

Things like team sports, where there is an inherent chance of winning or losing, or volunteering, joining an activity outside of the school or usual peer group, becoming active on a social issue they feel strongly about and getting a job all constitute positive risk-taking behaviour.

So, how do you parent through the risk factor? Taking risks is a fundamental part of growing up and we have all taken them at some point in our lives and survived to tell the tale - it can help to remind ourselves of this. We must try to model as many positive risk-taking behaviours as possible, as teens will often mirror behaviours of their parents. So, be aware of your own risk-taking behaviours, and ensure that you create and maintain a relationship with your teenagers in the real world.

Joanna Fortune is a psychotherapist specialising in child and adolescent psychotherapy.

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