As humans, we are wired to fear the unknown. A case in point: We often look askance at new technology, suspicious that it will completely upend our lives and perhaps even destroy society as we know it. These dire predictions have greeted every new technology, going back (in all likelihood) to Gutenberg and his printing press. Radio, the telephone, television and now the Internet and social media have all changed not just how we communicate but, to varying degrees, society itself. And each technology has been scrutinized in turn.
Thus, it may not come as a shock to read the current flurry of panicked headlines, such as “Smartphones are destroying a generation” and “Social media use tied to depression.” Counselors are well aware that depression, anxiety, alienation and even social isolation are tied to myriad factors, but most counselors also make their living talking to people face-to-face. So, although many counselors have embraced and are regular users of social media, it’s not surprising that others are skeptical about “faceless” interaction.
Regardless of personal viewpoint, however, the genie is out of the bottle. It’s too late to go back. Social media and other digital platforms are now the primary means through which adolescents and young adults socialize, form relationships and stay informed. But it’s not just for kids. People of all ages are staying in touch, pursuing interests and making new connections online. Digital personal interaction is here to stay, and counselors who shun any mention or understanding of social media risk not just failing to connect with clients, but actually alienating them, says Laura Gallo, a licensed professional counselor and former school counselor who studies adolescent social media use.
A matter of cultural competence
Given the role that face-to-face communication has traditionally played in counselors’ training and work, it can be difficult for practitioners to view digital communication as an effective way to form a therapeutic bond with clients, says American Counseling Association member Martin Jencius, a professor and the doctoral internship coordinator for counselor education and supervision at Kent State University. His research interests include the use of technology in counseling. Counselors are trained to garner information not just from speech but also from facial expressions and body language, he points out. “Unfortunately, that [in-person conversation] is only one way in which people communicate and form relationships,” he says.
Counselors may not want to engage in serious interactions on a virtual platform, Jencius says, but they should understand that many people — including many clients — are forming relationships in this way. Furthermore, these relationships are just as meaningful to people as those formed in the traditional manner, he adds.
Gallo, an ACA member, agrees. “We often ask ourselves, are people missing out on something by not looking at one another? But is this just a difference in values? And, as counselors, should we acknowledge that this may be our own bias?”
“Counselors must work to recognize this new culture — a culture with its own language, values and customs,” Gallo continues. “If a counselor does not identify as a ‘digital native,’ they may not be aware of the complexities of this culture and struggle to accept its importance in clients’ lives. Yet as counselors work to understand this cultural group, they are more likely to be able to empathize and make connections, strengthening the counselor-client relationship. I believe most counselors can understand how technology has become immersed in all of our lives. Whether it’s welcomed or valued may not be as important as accepting the significance it has for a client.”
ACA member Everett Painter, a former college counselor whose areas of research include technology, believes that understanding the role that social media and technology play in clients’ lives is a matter of cultural competence and ethical practice. As with other areas of cultural competence, counselors should do a self-inventory to determine what opinions and biases might be influencing their views on social media, he says.
Painter, an assistant professor of counseling at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, recommends that counselors develop basic literacy, at minimum, in social media and other online platforms. Ultimately, counselors should learn enough about online activity to understand the part it plays in clients’ lives, he says.
“Our role as counselors is to meet our clients where they are, to communicate unconditional positive regard and to recognize how they view the world,” agrees Gallo, an assistant professor of counselor education at Boise State University. “If interacting online is a focus and priority for a client and we fail to acknowledge this, the client may feel misunderstood by the counselor or, worse, ignored. I believe this could be said for clients of all ages [but] especially young people who spend more time online. If a teen client has to spend 10 minutes to describe what Tinder is, they might not think it’s worth it. It’s impossible to keep up with everything in the technology world, but counselors can strive to understand more about the common social platforms being used, as it may help create common ground between counselor and client. Just as we work to become culturally competent counselors in relation to gender, race, ethnicity [and] sexual orientation, we must recognize that there is a new culture surrounding technology.”
The reality is that digital culture is just “culture” for younger generations. Online interaction is inextricable from how they socialize.
Teenagers are still going through the normal developmental phases of defining themselves and figuring out who they are. It’s just that the cliques and the gossip and everything else that used to take place in the hallways at school are now occurring online, says ACA member Tracy Steele, the director of counseling for Stanford University’s online high school.
As comfortable as teenagers may feel in the digital world, however, there are still important aspects that they don’t understand, Steele continues. Counselors can play an important role in teaching adolescents to guard their safety by being careful about where they post personal information, being wary of people they don’t yet know and recognizing that people aren’t always who they say they are online, she explains. Teenagers — and many adults — also need to remember that the internet is forever. Once posted, impulsive remarks and photos cannot be taken back, Steele points out.
“The internet is relatively unmonitored, and teens often have more knowledge of its intricacies than the adults in their lives,” agrees Gallo. “Developmentally, we know teens place a lot of importance on peer groups, are developing their identity, can be more impulsive and are asserting their independence — all of which can factor into their online behavior.
“There is also the opportunity to interact 24/7, something different from past generations. This could lead to extra support from peers, but it could also lead to a higher probability of negative or risky behaviors. Counselors, especially those who work with teens, may be wise to learn as much as they can about different platforms, social media sites and popular apps that young people use. But more importantly, counselors may want to strengthen their relationships with young people, especially those displaying risky behaviors, in order to intervene and provide support when appropriate.”
Gallo recommends the website Common Sense Media, which maintains a variety of resources on children and technology, including a frequently updated list of popular social media platforms, for counselors, educators and parents.
Express and connect
The potential perils of social media use and other digital platforms tend to dominate coverage of today’s technology culture. Indeed, safety issues and the indelible nature of the “digital footprints” that all online users leave behind are important considerations to dissect and discuss. Often overlooked or discounted, however, are the positive aspects, including people of all ages who find that the digital world provides them with outlets unavailable in their offline lives.
In a survey that Gallo and her colleagues conducted, “School Counselors’ Experiences Working With Digital Natives: A Qualitative Study,” published in Professional School Counseling, school counselors reported that students often use technology as an expressive outlet. This outlet was especially helpful for shy or withdrawn students, but students of varying personality types also found expressing themselves online therapeutic, Gallo says.
“The ability to connect with others who have similar experiences, even from afar, may create much-needed companionship and help eliminate isolation,” she says. “Interacting with others online does not simulate ‘group counseling’ exactly, but it may contain some of the same therapeutic factors such as universality, altruism and, in some cases, instillation of hope and group cohesiveness. Some may also find opportunities for deep reflection, something they may not have felt comfortable with prior to the advent of technology.”
Painter notes that the ability to connect despite geographical limitations is not just useful for students. Finding online connection can be vital in areas such as rural communities, where resources such as support groups may be limited, he says. For example, when Painter was practicing in Tennessee, he had a transgender client who wanted to interact and receive support from other transgender people, but no local resources were available. Painter suggested that they look for an online group. He and the client found one that put the client in touch with other transgender people from all over the country, but they also discovered group members who lived in different areas of Tennessee, making it possible to meet in person.
Both Gallo and Painter acknowledge that there are some negative aspects of social media’s “always on” culture that warrant further attention. In this age of FOMO (fear of missing out), some people may be spending too much time online, and Painter urges counselors to educate themselves about overuse.
Gallo notes that online bullying continues to be a devastating force, fed by the inherent anonymity of online communication.
“Another important point to mention is the increase in anxiety we see today,” she says. “Many have asked, are the individuals who interact more online doing so because they have social anxiety, or does being online continuously create the anxiety they now experience? These are important questions researchers are studying, and the answers may influence the future work we do as counselors.”
Gallo believes that counselors can help clients strike a healthy balance between their online and offline worlds. “Through our discussions with clients, we may be able to help them understand both the positive and negative effects that technology has on their lives,” she says, “and we can provide the space for them to explore this phenomenon.”
Facts and Figures
According to a Pew Center research study, “Social Media Use in 2018”:
- 88 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds report using some form of social media
- 78 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds use social media
- 64 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds use social media
- 37 percent of people 65 and older use social media
Across all age groups:
- 68 percent use Facebook
- 73 percent use YouTube
- 24 percent use Twitter
- 35 percent use Instagram
- 27 percent use Snapchat
Americans ages 18-24 are substantially more likely to use platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter.
To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:
- “Ethics and Social Media” with Michelle Wade
Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)
ACA Code of Ethics (counseling.org/resources/aca-code-of-ethics)
- Section H: Distance Counseling, Technology and Social Media
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.