Tag Archives: Children & Adolescents

Responding to the rise in self-injury among youth

By Brent G. Richardson & Kendra A. Surmitis October 23, 2014

The prevalence of nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) among adolescents and young adults has rapidly and significantly increased in recent years, leading mental health professionals and researchers to describe its pervasiveness as epidemic. By definition, a person does not engage in NSSI with intent Photo of authors Brent Richardson and Kendra Surmitisto die. Rather, NSSI is a means of regulating emotions, relieving tensions, managing dissociative symptoms and influencing others. It is critical that counselors working with youth gain an understanding of NSSI and recognize its prevalence within the adolescent population.

There is growing evidence that many teenagers who engage in NSSI have been influenced by their peers. In 1985, Barent Walsh and Paul Rosen defined self-injury contagion in two ways:

1) When acts of self-injury occur among two or more persons within the same group within a 24-hour period

2) When acts of self-injury occur within a group of statistically significant clusters or bursts

The primary focus of this article is to identify environments that present a high risk for self-injury contagion and to suggest opportunities for counselors to minimize and prevent contagion when working with adolescents.

Benefits and pitfalls of group work

Many programs designed to treat adolescents who self-injure include group therapy as an essential ingredient in the treatment milieu. S.A.F.E. (Self Abuse Finally Ends) Alternatives, founded in 1985 by Karen Conterio and Wendy Lader, was the first treatment facility designed specifically for people who self-injure. Since its inception, clinicians at S.A.F.E. Alternatives have used group therapy as a central feature of its treatment programs. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which combines individual therapy, group skills training and family education, has emerged as one of the most effective treatments for adolescents who are suicidal and/or self-injure. Many of the key skills needed to reduce self-injurious behaviors (for example, emotional regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal communication skills) are learned and practiced in group therapy. Solution-focused therapist Matthew Selekman recently developed a nine-session Stress-Busters’ Leadership Group geared specifically toward adolescents who engage in self-destructive behaviors. The group is applicable in both school and community settings. While these group approaches (S.A.F.E. Alternatives, DBT and Stress-Busters) have several differences, it is important to note that each is largely didactic, highly structured and skill-based.

Group work is appealing both to adolescents and counselors for a number of reasons. For logistical and developmental reasons, group homes, residential facilities and hospitals typically utilize various forms of group work as their primary mode of treatment. Groups are more efficient and cost-effective than individual approaches because they enable counselors to work with more clients. In addition, group work tends to be a better developmental fit for adolescents than individual therapy, and adolescents often prefer it because a significant amount of social learning occurs in the context of formal and informal groups (for example, family group, classroom group, social group and sports teams).

Youth who self-injure tend to feel isolated and disconnected. Although individual counselors can inform youth that they are not alone, the group process allows them to experience a sense of universality with their peers, while learning from others who are at different stages in the recovery process. By assisting and supporting others, members begin to see themselves in a different light. One of the most effective ways to boost a youth’s self-esteem and self-confidence is to structure situations in which he or she can help others and feel altruistic.

Despite the potential benefits of using groups as a component in treating those who self-injure, there are also possible pitfalls that could disrupt the process or even increase self-injurious behaviors. Walsh, author of Treating Self-Injury, says counselors should be mindful that anytime individuals who self-injure are treated in groups, there is an increased risk for a contagion effect. In addition, he warns that groups that are largely cathartic in nature — wherein youth are encouraged to openly express their emotions and share traumatic experiences — are often counterproductive with this population. These types of groups can increase the risk of contagion because open discussion of self-injury antecedents, behaviors and consequences can be exceptionally triggering for some young clients.

Many clinicians and researchers assert that group leaders should structure activities that focus on empowerment and replacement or coping skills training, while prohibiting detailed discussion of self-injury. This can be challenging for counselors because sharing and hearing details about self-injury can be so alluring for both counselors and group members. Adolescent clients may view group therapy as an opportunity to compare wounds and share stories. These disclosures should be severely limited or prohibited from the onset, however. Counselors may want to acknowledge that discussing self-injury in great detail may be important but emphasize that those details should be shared in individual therapy rather than with group members.   

In summary, NSSI groups are most likely to be effective if:

1) Group leaders have significant training and understanding of treating self-injury and managing contagion

2) Membership is closed to enhance cohesion and trust

3) The group is governed by strict rules prohibiting the discussion of details of self-injury and the sharing of wounds or scars in the group

4) As with DBT groups, the sessions are highly structured, didactic and focus on teaching new skills and behaviors (for example, emotional regulation, mindfulness, self-soothing, distress tolerance and exercise) to help reduce further incidents of self-injury

Benefits and pitfalls of residential facilities

Similar to treatment in group therapy, clinicians who work with youth in residential treatment can be effective in counteracting self-injury, provided they follow the proper precautions.

The residential population is likely at higher risk for contagion due to peer influence and the prevalence of severe psychopathology such as eating disorders and issues with affective regulation. In fact, a number of researchers have observed that NSSI occurs in significant clusters in residential settings, including community-based group homes, special education boarding schools, juvenile detention facilities and psychiatric inpatient settings. Recognizing the potential for contagion in a residential population allows for appropriate precautions when determining the benefits of residential treatment on a case-by-case basis, and it can aid in the appropriate response to NSSI.

Several studies have found that self-injurious behaviors often increase for adolescents, regardless of Photo of self-injury wounds on armwhether they have a prior history of self-harm, during residential treatment. Clinical settings that feature multiple youth living together who exhibit emotional dysregulation can aggravate dysfunctional behaviors, including NSSI. Consequently, the increased likelihood of exposure to self-injury in a residential facility leads to the question of whether the benefits of inpatient care are worth the potential risks associated with contagion.

Despite concern for social contagion, several arguments can be made in favor of choosing residential treatment for NSSI. For example, cases that include high-risk behaviors such as clinically significant disordered eating require structured, intensive treatment. In similar circumstances, placement in a residential facility may be warranted, even if nonresidential treatment may pose less risk of self-injury contagion.

The first step in response to the risk of social contagion is making the appropriate referral to residential care on an individual client basis, while avoiding unnecessary hospitalization. Within the residential setting, precautions guide clinicians toward the appropriate response to NSSI. These responses include educating the individual client, confronting triggers of social contagion and using encouragement to motivate youth to build and share healthy coping skills.   

Subsequently, many of the challenges and recommendations for counselors who work in residential facilities are similar to those provided for group counselors. Although communicating with peers in a communal environment is beneficial for those who feel isolated and may benefit from peer support, mental health counselors are advised to educate residents on the negative effects of sharing stories of self-injury. These clients should instead be instructed to share stories of healing and healthy coping behaviors. 

Benefits and pitfalls of websites and message boards

Although the Internet is a potentially valuable source of support and information for self-injurers, various websites can also be breeding grounds for social contagion. Approximately 93 percent of American youth ages 12 to 17 use the Internet, and nearly two-thirds of adolescent Internet users go online daily. These numbers are growing every day. In the past decade, the number of websites intended for or about people who self-injure has increased. Research conducted in 2007 by Janis Whitlock, Wendy Lader and Karen Conterio revealed there were more than 500 message boards focused on self-injury. These researchers also observed the parallel between the increase in self-injury websites and the growth in self-injury awareness in society. Internet message boards provide a potent medium for bringing together adolescents who self-injure.

These self-injury websites and message boards offer a number of potential benefits. The Internet may have particular relevance and appeal for adolescents who are socially avoidant or feel marginalized. These youth may feel extreme relief upon finally being able to make meaningful connections with individuals who share similar concerns and experiences. The anonymity of these sites might also encourage youths to share more frequent and truthful disclosures about their feelings and behaviors. Positive peer pressure is another potential benefit. As is the case in group counseling, these adolescents might more readily accept online feedback from peers that encourages them to practice safer, more productive ways of expressing their emotions.

Thus, it is important that counselors not minimize the perceived value that these sites have for young clients who self-injure. Though social scientists and mental health professionals often focus on the potential harm of these discussion groups, adolescents who use them tend to self-report positive experiences as a result of their participation. For example, in one survey of self-harm discussion group members, Craig Murray and Jezz Fox found that the majority of respondents reported having reduced the frequency and severity of their self-injurious behaviors. The respondents attributed this largely to the support and guidance they found online.

Whitlock and her colleagues were some of the first researchers to study the content of self-injury message boards to better understand their role in sharing information about self-injurious practices and influencing help-seeking behaviors. These researchers found that the most common type of exchange on the message boards involved providing informal support to other posters through comments such as “We’re glad you’ve come here” and “Just relax and try to breathe deeply and slowly.”

However, in addition to the supportive communication found on NSSI-related sites, researchers also found dangerous messages. While 44 percent of all help-seeking posts presented favorable attitudes toward seeking mental health treatment, approximately 20 percent of the posts discouraged individuals from seeking treatment and/or voiced negative views about therapy. There was also considerable discussion about better ways to conceal scars and maintain secrecy.

These researchers warned that self-injury message boards expose vulnerable youth to a normalizing environment of encouragement for self-injury and hold the potential for fueling social contagion. On several sites, members shared new and often more dangerous techniques and instruments for cutting and even offered links to sites where self-injury paraphernalia could be purchased. Sites that feature graphic depictions of self-injury, including many videos on YouTube, can be highly suggestive or triggering to other self-injurious participants. Unfortunately, those who self-injure can become better at self-injury by learning from others they meet online. Some posters use chat rooms to coerce others, model self-destructive behaviors, compete with others and discourage others from stopping their self-injurious behaviors or seeking help.

As is evident, self-injury websites and message boards are helpful for some and counterproductive for others. Regardless, this needs to be an area of therapeutic inquiry. In fact, the popularity of the Internet among adolescents presents a crucial argument for assessment of Internet use in general, as well as specific assessment of Internet exposure to self-injury. Mental health professionals should therefore educate themselves about various websites for self-injurers (some recommended sites are included in the next section).

Whitlock and her fellow researchers suggested that clinicians maintain a curious, neutral, nonjudgmental tone when asking questions such as the following:

  • How comfortable do you feel hearing stories from others who self-injure?
  • Have you shared your own story? How did you feel?
  • What do you like most about having friends whom you really know only through the Internet?
  • How honest are you when you share information on the Internet? (Do you minimize or tend to embellish?)
  • Do you ever take advice from Internet friends? If so, can you provide examples of advice that you used?

Some NSSI sites have minimal or no monitoring for potentially dangerous content. If there are moderators, they typically have minimal or no training in mental health. With certain clients, counselors might assess that it is best to be direct in encouraging or discouraging particular sites or interactive behaviors. Counselors can clarify concerns about why some sites might be traumatic or triggering and therefore countertherapeutic. These direct suggestions will likely be more fruitful with adolescents who have entered counseling voluntarily, begun to develop a therapeutic relationship with the counselor and voiced a desire to stop or reduce self-injury.

Summary recommendations

In this article, several mediums have been identified as environments at high risk for social contagion of NSSI — namely group treatment, residential facilities and social media. Key considerations for the prevention of social contagion were identified. These include:

  • Developing a clinical understanding of social contagion and its significant impact on the adolescent population through training and further research
  • Working with clients who engage in NSSI to develop awareness of appropriate environments to discuss their self-injury stories, such as individual therapy sessions
  • Asking clients who self-injure to cover up scars, wounds and bandages that can be triggering
  • Prohibiting graphic detail of NSSI at the onset of group therapy
  • Incorporating strength-based strategies that encourage healthy coping behaviors in treatment
  • Assessing client Internet use, with specific attention paid to exposure to self-injury imagery
  • Determining the appropriate level of treatment and avoiding unnecessary hospitalizations that may invoke NSSI in vulnerable clients
  • Instructing clients to share stories of healing and healthy coping behaviors to decrease the opportunity for contagion, while inspiring altruistic motives in a group environment

Furthermore, the role of mental health counselors working with youth engaging in NSSI extends past the therapeutic relationship encountered in treatment to the family system and school setting to which the child is connected. Providing appropriate referrals to information for concerned individuals in the child’s life, such as parents and other caretakers, is an important action in attending to NSSI and contagion among peers. The following websites provide helpful information grounded in clinical research and professional standards.

Empowering family members and other members of the client’s care system to understand self-injury will help them to comprehend the messages sent by the child who is engaging in the behavior, while promoting an atmosphere of awareness to counteract opportunities for contagion. As a provider of information, it is crucial that the counselor is clear when it comes to appropriate Internet material, such as empirically validated information for families, and the potential misinformation provided by sites containing blogs and graphic imagery. The prevention of contagion begins with understanding NSSI in youth and empowering the people in their lives who also share in the opportunity to preclude self-injury among adolescents.

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This article was adapted from a previous article published in the American Mental Health Counselors Association’s Journal of Mental Health Counseling.

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Brent G. Richardson is chair of the Department of Counseling at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Contact him at richardb@xavier.edu.

Kendra A. Surmitis is an assistant professor of counseling in the Department of Educational Psychology at Northern Arizona University. Contact her at kendra.surmitis@nau.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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Facebook: Don’t let friends’ cries for help go unanswered

By Bethany Bray October 7, 2014

“I can’t handle life right now.”

“Didn’t get out of bed today.”

#worthless

For those who use Facebook, status updates, comments and hashtags such as these may be all too familiar. In this electronic age, people often turn to the availability and relative anonymity of social media to vent frustrations and sad feelings – or indications of deeper, more serious distress.

With this in mind, Facebook recently introduced a guide to help users know what to do if a friend posts a suicide threat or other serious cry for help.

facebookThe guide, which Facebook created in partnership with the nonprofit Jed Foundation and Clinton Foundation, was launched Sept. 10, on World Suicide Prevention Day.

Dubbed “Help a Friend in Need,” the guide is available on Facebook’s safety materials page and will also be promoted in Facebook ads geared toward college students.

Close to 90 percent of young adults (ages 18 to 29) use Facebook, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. Adults ages 30 to 49 are not far behind, with 82 percent reporting that they use Facebook.

The social network’s three-page “Help a Friend in Need” guide lists red flags and warning signs users should look for, as well as guidance on how to respond and ways to get help, including suicide hotline information. The material is based on evidence-based practices, according to the guide’s creators.

In the guide, Facebook urges users to trust their instincts. “If you see someone posting messages, photos, videos, links, comments or hashtags that suggest the person is in emotional distress, you should reach out and get them the help they may need,” the guide says. “… Never be afraid to give your friend a call, pay a visit, or send them a Facebook message to let them know you are concerned, and offer to help connect them with any extra support needed.”

The guide urges users to reach out directly to the individual, either in person or electronically, rather than clicking the “like” button on a concerning post, which could be misunderstood by the individual in distress.

If the individual declines to talk about what is troubling him or her, Facebook users are advised to say, “It’s OK if you don’t want to talk to me, but it is important that you talk to someone.” Options such as a mental heath center, college counseling office or chaplain are suggested.

“No matter what, you shouldn’t be embarrassed or worried about offending or upsetting your friend,” the guide says. “Helping your friend may take some courage, but it is always worth the effort to support their health and safety.”

The guide, launched for both Facebook and Instagram in the United States, is also available to users in seven European countries and Canada.

 

 

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Find the “Help a Friend in Need” guide at  fb.me/helpafriend

 

A full slate of safety materials, including information for parents, teens and educators, is available at facebook.com/safety

 

Facebook’s suicide prevention page: facebook.com/help/suicideprevention

 

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Red flags

Be aware of statuses/posts, messages, photos, videos, links, comments or hashtags that include the following themes:

  • Feeling alone, hopeless, isolated, useless or a burden to others: “I feel like I’m in a black hole”; “I don’t want to get out of bed…ever”; “Leave me alone”; “I can’t do anything”
  • Showing irritability and hostility that is out of character: “I hate everyone”; “F*@K the world”
  • Showing impulsive behaviors such as driving recklessly, a significant increase in substance use or taking other risks
  • Insomnia posts: “3 a.m. again and no sleep”
  • Withdrawal from everyday activities: “Missed another chem lab – I’m such a waste”; “Another day in bed under the covers”
  • Use of negative emoticons: for example, repeatedly using emoticons that suggest someone is feeling down or thinking about using a tool to hurt themselves.
  • Use of concerning hashtags: #depressed #lonely #whenimgone #noonecares #suicidal #selfharm #hatemyself #alone #sad #lost #worthless #neverenough #givingup
  • On Facebook’s “News Feed” and Instagram’s “Following Activity,” you can see the accounts and posts people start to follow. If you notice a friend liking or following feeds or posts that promote negative behaviors, even if they aren’t sharing concerning content themselves, it may serve as a warning sign that they are engaging with troubling messages or communities.

Source: fb.me/helpafriend

 

 

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Related reading

 

From the September issue of Counseling Today: “Losing Face: How Facebook disconnects us” ct.counseling.org/2014/08/losing-face-how-facebook-disconnects-us/

 

Online exclusive: “Critical social skills to incorporate in a 21st century social skills group” ct.counseling.org/2014/09/critical-social-skills-to-incorporate-in-a-21st-century-social-skills-group/

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook: facebook.com/CounselingToday

 

Critical social skills to incorporate in a 21st-century social skills group

By Aaron McGinley September 16, 2014

If you provide counseling services to clients who have autism, or any of several other mental health conditions, at some point you will inevitably work with them on social skills. And if you are like many of the practitioners I know, you have a sizeable collection of the various resources and materials available to support work on social skills. Why shouldn’t you? The works of Jed Baker, Michelle Garcia Winner and Carol Gray, among others, are full of insightful and engaging techniques to help polish interpersonal skills.

The challenge for many clinicians is how to fit these various curriculums into a world filled with Instagram, Facebook and the dreaded Snapchat. To update an old saying, this isn’t your father’s selfiesocial world.

The bulk of most social skills curriculums are appropriately focused on “in-person” social skills. Issues such as personal space, body language, conversational cues and job interview skills still offer overwhelming challenges for some individuals with special needs. But the social norms found in everyday interactions are further complicated by rapidly evolving technologies and social media platforms. Effective social skills instruction needs to reflect this reality and the changing norms that accompany these rules. If we are going to teach social skills effectively, our curriculums must reflect the unwritten rules of the 21st century.

Anecdotally, I have found that clients benefit from the same instructional strategies that are used with more traditional social skills training programs. Visual supports, direct instruction, role-plays, social cognition exercises and other strategies can still work to address Facebook faux pas, Snapchat social rules and email etiquette. However, such difficulties cannot just be added in on the fly. Because smartphones and tablets are fully integrated into today’s world, they also need to be fully integrated into any robust social skills curriculum.

 

The art of the ‘selfie’

Although “selfies” are a popular part of youth culture, and a tempting means for socially awkward youth to engage with their social world, the wrong type of selfie can sabotage a youth’s reputation, or worse, compromise his or her safety.

A social skills instructor might help a client recognize some of the unwritten social rules of selfies:

  • Don’t post more than one selfie in a day
  • Try to post selfies only at exciting new events
  • When possible, try to include other people in your selfie

 

Social media savvy

The time is gone when social skills instructors could easily redirect residents away from computers and toward the day-to-day challenges of social interactions. Social media use is now a regular part of most cultures, and the socially awkward youth cannot easily avoid the world of social media. At the same time, social media can be a source of challenges such as cyberbullying, Internet safety issues and other difficulties that are beyond the scope of this article.

With that said, there are some ways that social media savvy can be combined with common social skills lessons:

  • When doing a lesson plan on hygiene/fashion and reputation, have students show or draw their Facebook profiles for feedback from the group.
  • When discussing conversational skills such as active listening, discuss how these rules apply to online conversations.
  • When discussing boundaries, bring up such issues as what sorts of comments should go on a public wall, how often to “like” someone else’s pictures and similar issues related to conversational boundaries.

 

Email etiquette

Politeness, self-advocacy, follow-through, conciseness and other important social skills do not stop at the Internet’s door. When working with students on social skills, it might be helpful to support them by offering email etiquette lessons.

  • When running a lesson on “think before you speak,” suggest that students find a point person to run sensitive emails by before sending them.
  • When facilitating a discussion about self-advocacy, discuss how to practice self-advocacy in an email.
  • When discussing conversational skills such as manners, touch on how to incorporate these skills in email communications.

 

Let’s talk texting

At some point, many socially awkward young people get involved in tricky texting situations. Some do not recognize the challenges that can come along with “sexting.” For others, the challenges of dealing with unrequited love via text can be too much. A social skills instructor can:

  • Discuss texting styles
  • Help students understand what types of conversations should happen via text
  • Discuss the frequency of texting as it applies to different types of relationships, such as friends, teachers and other social roles

 

Between the time this article was written and posted, online social norms might have evolved dozens of times. But this only underscores the importance of being intentional about incorporating technology etiquette into social skills work. So sit down, pull out your social skills curriculum and ask yourself …“Is my social skills curriculum ready for the 21st century?”

 

 

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Aaron McGinley is student member of the American Counseling Association living in Asheville, North Carolina. In addition to serving as a social skills consultant at Beacon Transitions, an independent living program for young adults, he works as a clinical intern at Caring Alternative as he completes his work toward a clinical mental health counseling degree at Montreat College. Contact him at aaronmcginley001@gmail.com.

 

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Four Questions for Jamie Merisotis, President of the Lumina Foundation

Interview by Frank Burtnett September 3, 2014

Luminaguy

Jamie P. Merisotis, CEO of Lumina Foundation

Jamie P. Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, the nation’s largest private foundation committed solely to enrolling and graduating more students from college. In celebration of the opening of the 2014-2015 academic year, Frank Burtnett, editor of ACAeNews for School Counselors, asked Merisotis to present an overview of foundation work and discuss the importance of school counselors in achieving the Lumina Foundation’s mission.

 

1) Lumina Foundation has advanced the position that “education is the great equalizer,” and your Goal 2025 seeks to increase the percentage of Americans with high-quality postsecondary education credentials to 60 percent by 2025. What role do you see professional school counselors playing in achieving the student-centered experiences that result in improved career and college readiness?

Lumina believes that student outcomes — the real attainment of knowledge, skills and abilities that make students successful in work and in life — are the bottom line of a truly student-centered system. So the question is how do you create educational experiences that lead to those outcomes?

The Gallup-Purdue Index, a recent survey of 30,000 U.S. college graduates, found that those who have achieved great jobs and great lives were more likely to have been personally engaged with a faculty member, have participated in an internship, been involved in extracurricular activities and have graduated with minimal student debt. These findings held true regardless of the type of four-year institution — public or private nonprofit college; a highly selective institution or a less selective institution; or a top 100-ranked school in U.S. News & World Report vs. other schools.

Counselors play a very important role in helping students make informed choices, while also factoring in the complexity of their life circumstances. Counselors know that what students need from the educational experience is not just the academic part; it’s also the social and financial part. Students have to be able to choose the right college and pay for it, to seek out mentoring and tutoring support, and to pursue the internships and other high-impact experiences that are likely to prepare them for success. Given the unique challenges that today’s students face, the right choices are not made in a vacuum.

Lumina Foundation is invested in providing students and counselors with actionable data and information about what leads to success. We’ve recently developed a college planning checklist, based on findings from the Gallup-Purdue Index, which counselors could use to guide students toward the right postsecondary and career opportunities (see purdue.edu/checklist/college-planning-checklist.pdf).

 

2) How would the improvement of counselor-to-student ratios in the public education sector offer improved access to services by minority and economically disadvantaged students, contribute to the elimination of widening attainment gaps and bring about greater representation of the currently underserved in postsecondary education and many career fields?

Many students could benefit from any additional time spent with counselors, dealing with the complexity of their life circumstances and charting a path to success. Today’s student population is remarkably diverse, and a variety of unique challenges stand in the way of the finish line for so many. For instance, a high-achieving, low-income student has about the same statistical chance of going to college as does a low-achieving, high-income student. Almost 25 percent of low-income students who score in the top quartile of standardized tests never go to college. And of those who do, many never earn a degree.

Student support systems are more crucial than ever before when it comes to helping students go to college and finish their degree. The main institutional resource for pre-college advising is the high school counseling office, yet there are more than 450 students assigned to any one counselor, on average. That number isn’t an issue for some students. But for first-generation and other students in high-risk situations, the lack of help can quickly douse their college dreams. If counselors were afforded more time and attention to invest in students as individuals — especially traditionally underserved students — that could make all the difference.

 

3) Lumina Foundation recently announced an initiative designed to generate solutions to closing the skills gap and increasing communication between higher education and today’s workforce. How do you see such collaboration occurring, and will your support for such programs ensure that they include an identifiable and sustainable counseling component?

There is significant disagreement between higher education leaders and employers about the readiness of recent graduates to do the work required in entry-level jobs. In a recent survey by Gallup measuring how business leaders view the state and value of higher education, only one-third of business leaders “somewhat” or “strongly agreed” that graduates have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace. On the other side of the coin, nearly all (96 percent) of the provosts said their institutions are “somewhat” or “very effective” at preparing students for the workplace, according to a recent survey of provosts by Gallup.

What we’re trying to do at Lumina Foundation is develop models for collaboration to ensure that higher education is equipping students with skills that are relevant and necessary for today’s gradsworkforce. Additionally, this collaboration focuses attention on the need to provide students with higher quality information, earlier on, about what they need to be able to know and do in order to meet their future objectives. It is crucial to ensure that students get the right kind of counseling and mentoring to make informed choices about their education that will lead to a great job and a great life.

 

4) The Common Core State Standards, sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, have been the subject of considerable discussion and debate. Where does Lumina Foundation stand with respect to these standards and their role in the improvement of education nationwide, including the assessment strategies that are being suggested to measure accountability and progress?

Though Lumina Foundation does not work directly in K-12, we believe very strongly in the importance of K-12 reform. Students need to leave high school better prepared academically, socially and financially for the next phase of life. While the Common Core represents higher standards for what it means to be prepared, it is really about getting students to the starting line. The finish line is a postsecondary credential — one that reflects the knowledge and skills that students need to succeed.

Lumina’s interest is in the alignment of a higher level of standards for quality learning that span from K-12 to postsecondary to the workforce — all so that postsecondary degrees represent what students know and can do next. Ultimately, if the student is our vantage point and attainment is our end, then the Common Core is one step toward ensuring that students are prepared to achieve degrees and certificates that have real and relevant value.

 

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Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation. Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation committed to increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60 percent by 2025. Lumina’s outcomes-based approach focuses on helping to design and build an accessible, responsive and accountable higher education system while fostering a national sense of urgency for action to achieve Goal 2025. For more information on Lumina, visit luminafoundation.org. Create link

 

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This interview appeared originally in the August 2014 edition of ACAeNews for School Counselors.

 

Losing face: How Facebook disconnects us

By Jennifer L. Cline August 26, 2014

This past February, Facebook celebrated its 10th birthday. According to its website, Facebook now boasts more than 1.28 billion active users, and on any given day, more than 60 percent of those users access the site. Facebook’s stated mission is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”

But has Facebook, in fact, increased our social connectivity? Facebook and other forms of Neck-plug-Smallsocial media have inarguably enhanced the dissemination of information and allowed for more frequent, albeit often superficial, exchanges between people. However, the reliance on Facebook for connectivity has raised considerable concerns about its impact on the authenticity of the human experience.

Ironically, in a technologically advanced world in which we are able to keep in touch at all times with all people, citizens of the United States are feeling more alone and disconnected. According to the General Social Survey in 1985, before the dawn of social media, Americans reported having on average three confidants — the people with whom they discussed vitally important personal matters. By 2004,the average number of reported confidants had dropped to two, and the most commonly offered response was “zero confidants.” In 2010, the Pew Research Center collected comparable data on “core discussion networks” and found the average number of reported confidants remained at two.It seems that despite the use of communicative technology to connect, people are actually feeling more socially isolated.

The frightening prospect of face-to-face interaction

At this 10-year mark for Facebook, I think it is fitting that we critically examine the impact of interpersonal technology on our real-life social connections. As a counselor and researcher, I decided to engage in dialogue with young adults, a particularly “plugged in” generation, about their use of social media. For the past year, I have been learning directly from young adults about what is working for them and what is not. I spoke with 55 college students, 30 in a focus group setting and 25 in individual interviews, and this article highlights some of the most interesting and relevant findings from those conversations.

Certainly, some individuals use social media in a way that enhances their connectivity, while others supplant their embodied interactions with technology. This made me wonder about the importance of preference. Therefore, I began by asking this group of young adults if they preferred social media or face-to-face communication for social interactions. Their responses were intriguing.

On the surface, almost everyone expressly stated that they preferred face-to-face interactions. However, their stories quickly revealed that this “preference” was not that simple. They knew, at least intellectually, that the best way to communicate was face to face. At the same time, they felt pressured by the spontaneity of embodied conversation and felt interpersonally vulnerable when engaging with someone face to face. Therefore, using social media was an easy and convenient way to bypass those challenges while still getting their interpersonal needs met. In fact, some of these young adults admitted to engaging with social media while in the presence of others so they would appear occupied and unavailable for conversation. They also confessed that they were particularly likely to use social media to address conflicts with others — even if that person was physically present in the same room with them.

Not surprisingly, these young adults acknowledged wishing they felt more competent when relating to others face to face. Unfortunately, being “out of practice” created a vicious cycle in which lack of social competence led to greater dependence on social media use, which led to even more interpersonal awkwardness.

Implications for counselors

What does this mean for counselors? At its most fundamental level, the counseling experience is based on the ability to build a therapeutic alliance between client and clinician. And by nature, most clinical experiences are intense, face-to-face, interpersonal interactions. Initiating counseling is a brave endeavor for anyone, but if young adults increasingly avoid face-to-face interactions, especially if those interactions might be emotionally charged, how much more difficult will it be for them to reach out for help?

Furthermore, as clinicians, we see the value and merit in working through difficult experiences as simple as not knowing what to say in a given moment or asking someone out on a date and being rejected. Out of these events, we develop skills for dealing with difficult times, surviving painful disappointments, working through conflicts and directly facing the inevitable challenges of close relationships. However, if the current generation uses social media to bypass these less consequential growth experiences, how will they build these skills so that they have something to draw from when the difficulties and consequences are higher and more intense?

Finally, we know that meaningful interpersonal connections are important to our psychological health. Choosing more online interactions to meet the need for interpersonal connection allows users to avoid the difficulties of embodied relationships. Relationships in real life are often messy, frustrating and complex. Friends and loved ones are not always available to us, relating to others in the moment requires give-and-take, and our encounters sometimes leave us hurt and disappointed.

Online relationships, on the other hand, provide opportunities for less risky interactions that also require less giving of oneself. An online interaction does not require that we compromise our needs or delay gratification because friends are always available on Facebook, and when we’re finished with them, we simply click off. Choosing this one-dimensional interpersonal relationship potentially reduces online friends into self-objects that unidirectionally feed the user. Concern for the other is not required.

Social media motivations

My discussions with young adults about motivations for using social media resulted in answers that paralleled those about preference. Initially, they acknowledged their desire to keep in touch, to stay current and to take advantage of the ease and convenience of this technology — all answers that could be anticipated. However, upon further discussion, a tacit motivation for the use of social media emerged — the desire to psychologically protect themselves through enhanced control of social interactions and self-presentation. For example, I discovered that many college students use social media to covertly learn about others through passive observation and Facebook “stalking.” Then, using the information they have gathered, they approach these individuals in a manner that is likely to be well received, thus increasing the odds of interpersonal success.

Covertly learning the personal details of someone else’s life changes our experience of emotional intimacy. According to a 2010 article by Max van Manen, intimacy is created when there is a purposeful revelation of secret parts of oneself to another individual within the context of a trusted relationship. Facebook, however, reveals and makes public what was once personal, thus changing the meaning of privacy and intimacy. A continuous stream of social media updates allows a person to know what another is doing in a way that feels intimate or familiar, as if two people have spent all their time together. However, feeling emotionally intimate is not the same as being emotionally intimate, nor is feeling familiar the same as being familiar. Social media makes it easy to confuse the two.

facebookUsing Facebook is a bit like rummaging through a person’s medicine cabinet. You can look through either and learn a great deal about another person, some of which is quite private. However, it is fundamentally different to learn something about someone in this manner versus experiencing a purposeful revelation that requires vulnerability in the telling and empathy in the receiving. Counselors, of all people, know the value of being emotionally intimate, familiarly known and fully present with another human being. Fundamentally, reliance on social media sacrifices quality of interaction for quantity of interaction.

The college-age students I interviewed also described the heightened sense of control they felt over their self-presentation when engaging with others online. They explained their desire to present only their best selves online — their best pictures and their greatest moments — painting the picture of a happy, full and active life. These findings confirm recent research conducted by Catalina Toma and Jeffrey Hancock, who found that technology affords users the ability to select and edit their statements and take unlimited time to compose messages, allowing them to craft optimized versions of themselves online. Facebook, by definition, enables users to highlight treasured personal characteristics in an online profile and publicly display social connections with friends and family in an effort to be affirmed by other Facebook users.

These ideal self-presentations have multiple levels of impact on both the social media poster and the social media viewer. First, the ability to engage in self-promotion online, as well as the ability to maintain many shallow relationships, is a breeding ground for narcissistic traits. Furthermore, we have all suffered from the impostor syndrome, fearing that people would not really like or accept us if they really knew us, and social media can heighten this dynamic by promoting the creation of a reinvented self online. Posters may experience an increase in internal incongruence because they know that their real selves — the selves they actually know and experience — are different from the idealized selves they have presented online. Finally, even though Facebook consumers know that putting your “best face forward” is the rule online, they still look at others’ posts, compare themselves with those idealized self-presentations and begin to believe that others have better lives and a greater sense of well-being than they do.

The experience of anonymity and ‘online muscles’

One final area of conversations with these young adults related to their decreased awareness of others while using social media — or experiencing a sense of deindividuation. According to psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who studies personal responsibility and group behavior, this phenomenon is strongly fostered in situations that provide some level of anonymity. It involves a diminished sense of individuality and, consequently, a reduction in the sense of personal responsibility, leading to behavior that is incongruent with one’s personal standards of conduct. In other words, deindividuation means we are more likely to engage in socially inappropriate or self-serving behaviors when we do not feel that our behaviors are closely associated with our identity.

It may seem odd that the phenomenon of deindividuation would apply to Facebook, given that one’s identity is known on the social media site. However, the young adults I interviewed observed repeatedly that users post things on Facebook that they would never say in real life, including inappropriate self-disclosures, aggressive comments, rude insults and extremist opinions. They revealed that behind the protection of a screen, users grow what one woman called “online muscles.” Although they said that knowing the identity of a Facebook user should make people feel accountable for their words, they acknowledged that the psychological distance created by the technology allows for the phenomenological experience of anonymity.

When students reflected on this phenomenon, they posited that not being able to see the other person allowed them to reduce the interaction to “just words.” As a result, they felt less accountability for how they might affect another person. Furthermore, they theorized that the phenomenological experience of anonymity was related to an altered sense of reality that many users experience while engaging with others on social media. Cognitively, these students were aware that Facebook is a venue for interacting with many people simultaneously, a way to “talk to everyone.” Yet time after time, they described losing track of their audience and feeling as though they were actually talking to no one. They characterized their experience as “talking to the computer, basically,” “talking to self” and “it’s just you and your words … you and the computer screen.”

Social media, a form of mediated communication, creates technological distance, which allows people to treat others in ways they would not consider if they were engaged in embodied interactions. In the process of becoming caught up in themselves, users forget their audience and say things they would not say in real life.

Final thoughts

Our adoption of social technology is happening at astronomical speed, and my conversations with college students, although certainly not conclusive, suggest that this is not a benign development. Instead, social technology is a bit like the Trojan horse — seducing us with its beauty and stated mission, but all the while secretly sabotaging our most human qualities.

The ability to make meaningful interpersonal connections is of profound importance to our psychological health. Rather than promoting social connections as Facebook posits, social media technology separates people from the relational and promotes the individualistic and narcissistic. Self-interest ultimately leads to a loss of self and a decreased awareness of others. Eventually, we are unable to see and fully experience the humanity of others, creating the psychological distance that allows us to treat others in inhumane ways. This represents a loss of our most essential human qualities — a loss that we cannot afford.

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Jennifer L. Cline is a licensed professional counselor and approved clinical supervisor in Verona, Virginia. Contact her at jenniferclinelpc@gmail.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org