Sunday 25 February 2018

Dear David Coleman: Our daughter freaks out about her online life. How can we help?

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Photo posed
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. Our 13-year-old daughter is really stressed recently and we fight much more. It got much worse when her phone was taken off her for three weeks for inappropriate behaviour. Since then we have put the wifi on a timer and from 6.30-9.30pm she is glued to her phone and gets so annoyed if she is disturbed. She holds her head and shouts, "I'm so stressed, my head is full, I have to get everything done in a few hours. It's freaking me out". She hates her life, she hates her look. We hate that we have to give out to her so much. Please help.

David replies: Your daughter does sound deeply distressed about her online life, while you sound so upset that you are having all of this conflict.

The comments that your daughter makes about hating her life, and hating her look, do seem very significant and they do seem to be related to her social media and online life.

The Internet, and especially social media apps, put pressure on children and teenagers. For example, photo sharing apps, like Instagram, promote highly unrealistic and heavily doctored content of beautiful people (so called 'influencers') in beautiful locations doing beautiful things.

I can understand how children might aspire to being similar. Even their peers will only share the right image, that shows the best angles, that highlights a specific aspect of themselves or their actions, since they know that each image will be seen and judged by everyone else.

I actually think it's exhausting and stressful for youngsters. They feel they must fit in with their friends (that's an age-old teenage dynamic), but increasingly that 'fitting in' is virtual rather than real. Teenagers don't just connect with their friends online, they must put their idealised self out there too and hope that it meets the ideals their friends aspire to.

I find myself increasingly concerned about the stresses that the Internet is placing on children and teenagers.

There are increasing amounts of evidence, from research, that show the negative aspects of social media. We hear more and more about how screens disrupt sleep and how teenager's online interactions have real impacts on their self-esteem and happiness.

For example, teens who browse and flick through other people's profiles, uploads and posts are less happy and satisfied than those who engage with other people's posts by 'liking', commenting or sharing.

Simply absorbing other people's lives seems to be the dissatisfying aspect. When we use social media to be sociable we are more satisfied.

I think you should stick by the limits that you have set. I know of other families who have successfully set hard limits on their children and teenagers not having technology or phones in their bedrooms.

The real benefit of this is that bedrooms can actually become a place of refuge, rest and recuperation, or can be a location for uninterrupted homework and studying. Having technology access only allowable in the shared areas of the house means that youngsters are less likely to shut themselves away from their family for hours at a time.

But, as with any limit that we set for our children, we need to balance the determination with which we uphold it with some warmth, understanding and acknowledgement that the limit might be frustrating, upsetting, annoying or just tough to accept.

Empathy about the difficulty that this might present to our teenagers can offset some of the conflict. They may not be happy with our decision, but if they can see that we have heard and taken on board their views it can be easier for them to accept it.

So, try to show some interest in your daughter's online communications and see if, at times when she is not online, you can understand more of the pressures she faces and what might make those pressures worse or better. Be open and curious to understand her world better.

Teenagers need an online presence, but I also believe that presence needs to be balanced by a presence in the real world with friends and family. So stick by your guns, but be kind and understanding about the fact that it might be hard for your daughter.


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