I am now the mother of a teenager. I was geared up for the arrival of hormones and huffs but so far it is not nearly as emotionally challenging as I was expecting, although we are only a few weeks in. I feel nervous having typed this; the precursor to it all going wrong must surely be showing off online about how well you are doing something.
Which links neatly to the unexpected adversary of parenting in the teenage years I had not really given much thought to – Social Media.
I am a stickler for rules, so no one in my house was having access to anything they had to give fake ID for. 13 is the golden age where most of these apps become ‘legal’ so having a teenager means I have just entered the world of online parenting.
The media is full of stories about how Smart Phones are destroying a generation, ruining lives and causing a mental health crisis. While I know from experience working with young people that there are risks, I also know that Smart Phones are here to stay. Short of moving to a desert island to raise my kids (and I can’t even imagine parenting without Google so that’s not going to happen), there’s no question that they will play a large part in their lives and that Social Media, whether now or in the future, will be part of that.
Maybe this is a result of cognitive dissonance, but I genuinely feel that Social Media has been a mostly positive influence in my life. It has helped me get to know people better who might have otherwise just been passing acquaintances. Social Media has introduced me to books, music, films, events and ideas I would never have known about otherwise. It makes me feel supported, sometimes very practically (“Has anyone got an animal costume I can borrow tomorrow?”). Social Media entertains me, challenges me and gives me a place to share.
I do know that it is not without risks. Sometimes, I take things personally. Sometimes I see sides of people I wish I hadn’t. Sometimes I show sides of myself I wish I hadn’t. I can easily lose an hour browsing that could have been better spent doing something more productive. Still, I think the benefits outweigh the risks, so long as I manage them carefully. I think how you view and do Social Media determines whether it enhances or ensnares you.
It has been eye-opening to see how different a teenager’s experience of Social Media is to my own. I scroll through my daughter’s newly established Instagram feed and see no female faces which have not been electronically modified. While this is done explicitly – everyone knows girls don’t have cat ears – I wonder about the psychological effect of seeing this new ‘normal’ face, with a tiny chin, enlarged eyes and perfect skin, over and over again. Girls seem to comment almost exclusively on how beautifully each other is. And beside this, the boys faces are unaltered and their chat focused on what they are doing. As a feminist this concerns me. As a psychologist, seeing the impact on mental health of this life lived in comparison, it terrifies me.
But as with all terrorism, the power is in the fear. So what if I refuse to be afraid? What if I believe instead that Social Media can be good and look for a way to navigate through it both for myself and for my children? What if Social Media can not only be neutralised but actually be used to make you happy?
Happiness research is a real thing. You can study for degrees in happiness at Ivy League universities. This is not a frivolous topic. Happy countries have better economics. Happy workers are more productive. Happy people cost society less. And happy teenagers save parents sleepless nights (and the need for photographic filters on Social Media).
So what if some of the principles of happiness were applied to Social Media? How would that change how we view it and how we do it?
Bill O’Hanlon has inspired much of my approach to work. In my personal life I have found his acronym for happiness a helpful driver in decision making. He has distilled the research on happiness into 4 key factors which everyone needs: SOAP. I’m now thinking of how I might clean up my little corner of the internet applying it. I’m wondering if it might help me lay down some guidelines to help my daughter stay happy on Social Media too.
The happiest people have strong social connections. The evidence of course relates to real-life relationships. Still, it feels like a good start. There is definitely potential for increasing socially connection through social media. Connections are not automatically positive and nowhere is this more true than online. I think it can be helpful to distinguish connections that drain from those that energise.
Drains make you feel less. Sometimes that’s through consistently negative posts. Sometimes you just find yourself feeling ‘less’ having looked at their updates. If their posts make you feel less beautiful, less accomplished, less successful, it doesn’t really matter if it’s their fault or yours for making the comparison, don’t spend time looking.
It’s possible to maintain friends without looking at what they post online all the time. I don’t even need to unfriend them. I can just stop their updates from showing on my timeline. Maybe when I am in a better place I can appreciate their shares for what they are. For now, if it’s making me compare, I need to step away from the screen.
Energisers‘ posts make you laugh, make you think, make you feel connected to them. Sometimes they’ll post things that make you compare a little but overall seeing what they post makes you feel better. I have energising online friends who I never meet in real-life but they impact on my day to day life immensely by what they share.
So my advice to my daughter is, Try to be an energiser. Be real. Only say things you’d say in real life. Ask yourself whether what you’re posting is likely to make people feel better about themselves or worse. Make people laugh. Post things that will make people think. Be brave enough to share your opinions and humble enough to listen to ones that are different yours. Don’t be scared to reach out to ask for or offer help. Choose your connections carefully. Only connect with people you know and filter what you follow based on how it makes you feel.
Looking for positives rather than negatives leads to longer, more satisfied life. Obviously connecting with Energisers is going to build up optimism but sometimes we have to work at it ourselves. Optimism is a habit that can be practised and built. Even habitual pessimists can train themselves to catch negative thinking and check what an alternative explanation might be. Is that person showing off or might they be looking for affirmation because they are feeling vulnerable? Is that comment definitely directed at me or might it mean something else?
Teenage daughter, please write positively on Social Media; you’ll feel better about yourself and maybe encourage others to at the same time. Avoid judging people harshly by wondering what is behind what they post. If you are seeing anger or cruelty, it’s probably coming from fear or sadness. You can’t control that but you can choose kindness. If that isn’t working you can choose not to look at what someone is writing. Always try to be your most optimistic self online. What you focus on is what will fill your mind.
Gratitude can be used to effectively change how people feel about their lives. Appreciation is also the antidote to comparison, the ever present danger of Social Media. I have discovered that when I feel jealous of someone, complimenting the very thing I feel jealous of, extinguishes the negative feeling. The more I practise it the better I get.
Social Media can be used for complaining about all that you feel is wrong in the world or it can be used to celebrate all that you feel is right. I love people who celebrate nature, beauty and creativity online. Someone I know recently set up a Facebook page solely for sharing what local people love about the town we live in. The communal sense of gratitude is good for us all.
I do have some reservations about #soblessed posts which feel too close to showing off but maybe that’s just my West of Scotland cultural bias showing up. Gratitude always works for the grateful but it helps to be mindful about how it might affect the onlooker. Will it lead people to compare their own lives and feel they come up short? I think gratitude firmly placed in reality helps avoid this. My kids are both wonderful and a huge source of stress. I could take a photo for Facebook in the only tidy corner of my house or I could just take it amidst the reality. I am definitely drawn to the former but am fairly confident that the latter would make other people feel better.
Daughter, you already know the power of gratitude, writing down things you are thankful for every day. Social Media gives you a platform to focus on what you feel is good in the world or to complain about what isn’t. Choose to be grateful for what you have especially when you feel jealous of what you don’t have. Say thank you often. Give genuine compliments freely. Notice what is good in the world and keep notes, in photographs and words. Moments will come when it will help to look back on them.
The final common factor found in happy people is a sense of purpose in life. Social Media can unfortunately drive a particularly negative purpose in life, one of making an impression and creating a perfect life. Depending on your connections, some sites can feel like there is room for nothing but this. I fear that for teenagers this is possibly more of a risk. With the right connections though, you can see the power of social media to work for good.
Politics has been re-energised by the ability to share information and debate on Social Media. As it becomes more apparent how manipulated the mainstream media can be in this era of Fake News, Social Media can offer an alternative. As long as we avoid sitting in echo chambers of our own beliefs and are open to alternatives, Social Media can be a place of learning and social change.
As a Christian, I have found myself despairing at times of the public face of my faith. Through Social Media I have discovered bloggers who share my sense of social justice as well as my feminism and faith. They have empowered me, educated me and restored my sense of purpose in the world.
Finally to my daughter I say, Remember your life is not about how you look or who you impress. Your life is about being the best version of you, the bravest, kindest version you can manage to be in whatever situation you find yourself. Even now what you share or how you respond will share values with the world. Find people to follow who live for a bigger purpose and learn from them. And I hope as you grow you’ll use your wisdom and words to make a difference to those who have no voice.
The teenage years are a time of growth and learning, a time when mistakes will be made. Some of them will be made in Social Media. This is much more difficult than in my youth, when mistakes faded with time. So for the next few years, I will be monitoring my children’s use of Social Media carefully. I could view this as an extra responsibility I could do without. Or I could view it as an opportunity to Socially connect with my kids. I could view it Optimistically and Appreciate the opportunities it offers. I could even use it to develop a shared sense of Purpose to our lives. Yes, I think Social Media could make us happy. As long as we are in it together.