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September/October 2016 Issue

Technology Trends: When Teens Turn to Social Media for Validation
By Susan A. Knight
Social Work Today
Vol. 16 No. 5 P. 6

"This is totally going viral," says the father to the mother in the TV commercial, as he calmly records their two young children emptying out shampoo bottles, making a mess of the bathroom. At the end of the commercial, the mother happily announces that the posted video has received 20,000 views.

The commercial capitalizes on the trend of posting anything and everything to social media and pokes fun at the lengths people will go to in order to attract attention and feedback from an online audience.

This behavior is reflective of our existence as social creatures. "There's a human tendency to want to find a sense of identity in what we do and how we look from external sources," says Brooke Sprowl, LCSW, founder, CEO, and clinical director of Santa Monica Therapy and My LA Therapy. "This can lead to us becoming addicted to sources of approval and validation outside of ourselves." While anyone can be susceptible to the draw of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, teens are especially vulnerable to developing an unhealthy reliance on these platforms.

Preoccupation With Social Relationships and Status
As a teen separates and individuates from his or her parents, Sprowl says, developmental changes impact how the teen relates to peers. "Developmentally, teens are neurologically wired to be preoccupied with social relationships and status," she says. "They don't know their selves well, they don't have much life experience to draw on, and it's easy for them to internalize the external feedback that they receive."

As they work on exploring and establishing their own identities, teens are inclined to place a high level of importance on the feedback they receive from external sources such as social media. "Their sense of identity is fragile," Sprowl says, "and these external forces are heavily weighted for them."

During this process of identity formation, teens increasingly look to others around them. "During adolescence, young people are trying to figure out who they are," says Jonathan Rhoads, MSW, LCSW-C, founder of JMR Counseling. "They're trying to figure out 'Who am I?' 'What is my purpose in life?' 'What do I value?' 'What do I think others value?' And there's a misconception that their values must match others' values."

By looking outward and observing others, a form of social learning takes place. "They use their peers as a sounding board," Rhoads says. "Peers provide an emotional and psychological support system."

Doubt, Insecurity, and Anxiety
As part of his work with children, adolescents, and young adults, Rhoads regularly addresses the issue of social media and anxiety in teens. He explains that the practice of comparing one's self with others, which social media so readily facilitates, can result in an endless stream of questioning and self-doubt: "Why did that post get more 'likes' than mine did? Why does that person have more Facebook friends than I do?"

He adds that the individual might also start to obsess over their reputation and how they're being perceived. With each new post, they're plagued by doubt and insecurity: "Do people like what I posted? What if they don't like it?"

For some individuals, Rhoads says, a complete lack of feedback can be worse than a negative response. He explains that negative feedback at least serves as evidence that the post, and thus the poster, was deemed worthy of a response. This in itself can be a form of validation for the individual. The lack of a response, on the other hand, can be interpreted to mean that no one cares, since no one took the time to respond. This can lead to anxiety and distress around the perceived lack of attention.

Feedback Loop and Fear of Missing Out
In an attempt to remedy the perceived problem of unfavorable or absent responses, teens often ramp up their efforts and post more content, more often. It becomes a feedback loop, Sprowl says; the person feels compelled to continually engage with social media and to respond to the feedback they receive. Driven by a fear of missing out, or FOMO in text-speak, this can develop into an addiction. In an attempt to elicit a response, it's easy for the poster to overlook safety and privacy issues, posting increasingly personal or indiscriminate content.

In addition to its addictive nature, this feedback loop also has a tendency to create an unhealthy focus on numbers. "It becomes all about quantity over quality," Rhoads says, "with the belief that more—more 'likes', more comments, more retweets—means better." Left unchecked, reliance on these quantifiable external elements can begin to take the place of self-confidence.

Social media itself isn't necessarily the cause of these behavioral issues. "Bodies, brain chemistry, and hormones are all changing during adolescence," Sprowl says. "These factors create a perfect storm for young people to be reckless and to act out in various ways." Social media simply provides another medium through which the behaviors can occur.

However, the digital nature of social media makes it unique in that a poster can access an international audience of thousands in mere minutes. Sprowl describes it as an amplifier of behavior: "Social media has become a megaphone to the natural phenomenon that is already present. It becomes the platform that exacerbates behaviors and tendencies."

Rhoads also views social media as exacerbating issues rather than causing them. "Peer pressure has always been there," he says. "Social media just puts it out there and pushes it to the forefront as an issue that young people have to deal with."

Risks Within the Social Media Environment
The permanence of content posted to social media presents potential risks to all users, but this is heightened for teens, given their propensity for impulsivity. "Teens are very much focused on the here and now, instead of the long term," Rhoads says. Combined with their lack of life experience, this can make it difficult for them to appreciate the consequences of their actions—in this case, the potential permanence of what they're posting.

Even when they have a technical understanding of what it means to leave behind a permanent digital footprint, it can be difficult for a teen to fully process all the far-reaching implications of this. Therefore, the risk of having personal or inappropriate content viewed by a prospective employer several years down the road might be difficult to grasp; it might not seem like much of a risk at all.

The ability to hide behind screen names presents another risk within the social media environment. The sense of anonymity can make some posters less inhibited in how they communicate with others, with the tone becoming hostile or harassing in nature. For those individuals who rely heavily on social media for approval and validation, this can have serious consequences. "There is a strong correlation between instances of cyberbullying and higher rates of suicidal ideation, depression, and anxiety," Rhoads says.

While anyone can find themselves the victim of internet harassment and cyberbullying, certain populations are even more vulnerable to this type of activity. Rhoads specializes in treating children, adolescents, and young adults with autism spectrum disorders, and he notes that cyberbullying is a big issue in autistic populations.

Parental Modeling, Understanding, and Support
Young people who are confident and secure and have healthy self-esteem are much better equipped to navigate social media and other online platforms. However, Sprowl cautions that it's not enough for parents to verbally support and encourage these traits in their children; the message needs to be modeled in terms of the parents' own apparent self-concept.

"Teens will internalize what their parents do and their parents' way of being in the world," Sprowl says. "Parents need to model emotional expression; they need to teach and model for children that they're accepted and that it's safe to express their feelings."

Parents also need to make an effort to understand and appreciate the significance of social media in their children's lives. "A big issue is that many parents didn't have social media access when they were growing up," Rhoads says, which can make it difficult for them to relate to their children's experience.

He suggests education around the impact of social media in the lives of young people can help parents empathize with what their children are going through. Rather than dismissing their child's distress around being "unfriended" on Facebook, for instance, parents can make an effort to listen without judgment, acknowledge their child's feelings, and provide a supportive space for the child to work through things.

Establishing technology-free zones in the home is another way parents can support teens in managing their social media involvement, Rhoads says. It's also helpful to have technology-free times during which family members engage in other activities.
In addition to getting time away from technology, Rhoads recommends that young people get involved in activities they enjoy where they can interact with other people. This helps to put electronic friends and connections into perspective, reducing their relative importance. "The teen is able to say, 'I can do this, I enjoy doing it, and I'm doing a good job at it.' This allows them to build in-person relationships, develop social skills, and gain confidence and validation in the real world."

— Susan A. Knight works with organizations in the social services sector to help them get the most out of their client management software.