I recently did a presentation for a group of high school parents on social media use. Instead of focusing on their children, I began by asking parents about their own use of social media sites like Instagram and Facebook. As a counselor, I believe my reflections on this experience might be helpful to other practitioners when working with adolescent clients or their parents. To begin our discussion, I asked the following questions:
- How many of you use social media?
- How many of you have thought about changing your habits around your social media use?
- What keeps you from making these changes?
- How often do you feel pressured to post, like, or comment on someone else’s posts?
- How many of you have had similar conversations with your children?
This was one of the most eye-opening discussions of social media use I have ever had with parents. I had assumed parents periodically reflect on their own use of social media and were having conversations with their children about navigating the digital world. Every parent in attendance said they participate in social media sites. They all had considered leaving or changing the ways in which they use social media, but maintained their connections for a wide range of reasons, such as staying in touch with family and friends; using the marketplace; monitoring children’s use; getting news; or learning about events in the community. In addition, almost all of the parents had even felt pressured to participate in an online social media platform in order to maintain relationships, support someone in their social circle or avoid awkward interactions. However, none of them had considered having conversations with their children about their social media use. Why is that?
Many adults and parents assume that tweens and teens know more about social media than we do. And this may be true. But, at the same time, adults can help children process their experiences in these environments. Younger people may know how to post stories, use filters, and increase followers more than their parents, teachers, coaches, or counselors; however, this does not make them experts in social media. Young people need help navigating the uncharted territory these online environments create. Most counselors and parents are aware of safety concerns involving online activity, but there are other big-picture aspects they should also consider asking about, such as:
- Tell me more about the social media platforms and apps you use. How do they work? What do you like about them?
- What are your interactions like? Are they positive, or do you sometimes get caught up in negativity or conflict?
- What kinds of pressure do you feel equipped to handle on your own? What types of pressure leave you feeling unsure how to handle?
- How do you filter who you allow into your social media and who you deny entrance?
- What is your ideal number of followers or likes? What would reaching that number mean to you?
- What will you do if someone you know from school or work sends a follow or friend request, but you question their intentions? How would you feel about blocking or unfriending someone?
- How would you react if you saw something inappropriate or unkind on one of the more publicly accessible platforms such as Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter or Facebook? Would your reaction change if you knew that your response could resurface in the future or in a different app?
Keeping up with the ways in which technology is changing our relationships and world can be a lot of work, but we cannot allow ourselves to take our hands off the wheel. Although not all counselors choose to participate in social media sites, such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, or Snapchat, it is crucial to stay up to date on the ways these social media platforms impact clients’ lives and relationships. For those who work with child and adolescent clients, it is equally important to find reputable resources to share with clients’ caregivers. Websites like commonsense.org can be helpful as a starting point. Local libraries and schools often hold workshops or sessions focused on navigating digital spaces as well.
Just as we cannot expect parents to navigate the digital world without guidance, nor can we expect that adolescents will understand all the social nuances of the online social world without our help. By partnering with adolescents, and allowing ourselves to find vulnerability in our lack of expertise, we may be able to help them think through some big questions about who they are, what they represent and how they want to show up in the world—not just online but IRL (in real life).
Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives: “#disconnected: Why counselors can no longer ignore social media”
Adria S. Dunbar is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Human Development at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. She has more than 15 years of experience with both efficient and inefficient technology in school settings, private practice and counselor education. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
@TechCounselor’s Instagram is @techcounselor.
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