Counseling Today, Cover Stories

Helping clients develop a healthy relationship with social media

By Bethany Bray September 24, 2020

When a user opens Facebook, Twitter or many other social media platforms, there is a slight delay before an icon illuminates to indicate that the person has a notification, signaling that someone has liked or interacted with one of the user’s posts.

That moment of delay is purposely designed into social media apps to create an alluring cycle of anticipation and reward, according to Amanda L. Giordano, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) whose main area of research is behavioral addictions, including addictions to technology and social media. “Social media is made to be irresistible. It taps into the pleasure centers of the brain. It’s designed to keep you on it as long as it can,” says Giordano, an associate professor at the University of Georgia. “They operate from the variable ratio reinforcement scenario. That’s the most powerful reinforcement schedule there is. [Social media’s draw] is like gambling, knowing that there could be a big payout at any time, so you keep playing. Users know that they’re going to get some kind of reward, but they don’t know when it’s coming. There is a strong dopamine response [to that].”

That drive to seek the rewards that are triggered by social media can lead to compulsive and problematic use. But by providing psychoeducation about the ways that social media platforms are designed to affect neural pathways, counselors can help clients achieve a healthy balance with their social media use, says Giordano, a member of the American Counseling Association. This is especially true with child and adolescent clients, who are digital natives who have been exposed to technology all of their lives but may not yet possess the maturity to recognize the control that social media can exert over them, she adds.

Providing psychoeducation is just one of many ways that counselors can assist clients in flipping their perspectives and using social media to get what they want out of the experience rather than vice versa. Taking simple actions such as changing a smartphone’s color scheme to gray scale can render Facebook’s notification icon — a red bell — less powerful, Giordano notes.

“By becoming aware of all of that, and understanding how social media is tapping into some of these more primitive brain responses, clients can be empowered by the knowledge and take more control over their use,” she says.

Part of life

According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of American adults use at least one social media site “to connect with one another, engage with news content, share information and entertain themselves.” Pew found that those ages 18-29 had the highest usage at 90%, followed by 30- to 49-year-olds at 82%, 50- to 64-year-olds at 69%, and those 65 and older at 40%.

Pew’s data collection in early 2019 found that more than half of adults who used Instagram, YouTube or Snapchat visited those sites at least once per day. Facebook was pinpointed as the most popular social media site, with 69% of adults using the social networking platform. In addition, 74% of Facebook users visited the site daily.

These statistics point to a hard-to-ignore conclusion: Social media is a very real part of the fabric of people’s lives today. Regardless of counselors’ personal feelings about social media — whether they view its impact and influence as a net positive or a net negative — they must do their best to understand it and the role it plays in their clients’ lives.

Don’t discount the positives

Social media use can factor into any number of presenting issues and challenges that clients bring to counseling, from relationship friction discussed in couples counseling to self-esteem or body image issues in clients who struggle with perfectionism, eating disorders, social anxiety or other conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer to this issue, as many people are quarantined or otherwise spending more time at home, feeling isolated and turning to social media to find connection or quell boredom.

As it relates to their clients’ lives, professional counselors may first think of the potential negative implications of social media use. However, the counselors interviewed for this article emphasize that there are both good and bad aspects of social media use. And for many people, the pluses can far outweigh the minuses.

“It’s an area that many counselors shy away from. … A lot of times, it feels like folks demonize social media. There are a lot of ways to keep from using it in an unhealthy way and to use it to your benefit,” says Kertesha B. Riley, a career coach at the University of Tennessee’s Center for Career Development and Academic Exploration, where she is working on a doctorate in counselor education. “There are hundreds and thousands of examples where social media is not a good thing at all, but I don’t let that outweigh the good that can come from it.”

Riley is active on Twitter, using the platform to stay up to date professionally, follow leaders in the field and forge connections. In the realm of career counseling, social media sites such as LinkedIn can play an integral role in clients’ job searches, Riley says, adding that she often talks with her clients about leveraging social media to enhance their career development. Creating posts with hashtags such as #jobs and #hireme can catch the attention of potential employers, while clients can follow hashtags within their own industries to stay abreast of trends or connect with colleagues.

“It can help [clients] to stay in the know and connect with people, but also further their career goals in a way that propels them a lot quicker than without [using social media],” says Riley, a member of ACA. “For networking, follow leaders and movers and shakers in your industry, and see who they follow. See what gets you noticed on this platform, and in your field.”

Social media can also serve as a tool to find and connect with professionals with whom clients relate, Riley notes. “Especially for those who are having feelings of doubt or mention that they’re not seeing people who look like them in the field, they can follow people they admire and identify with.”

As a Black doctoral student, this is the case for Riley. Although she doesn’t have many Black colleagues at her university, she follows and interacts with many Black doctoral students and professors via social media.

ACA member Jordan Elliott saw how social media could play a beneficial role in her work as a residential counselor at a treatment facility for women with substance use disorders. Many of the women at the facility had extensive trauma histories. Elliott, an LPC intern and licensed chemical dependency counselor in San Antonio, often worked with clients to create social media plans for after they were discharged. In many cases, this included joining social media groups and following pages with others in recovery.

These connections helped the women support each other and keep moving forward in their recovery after discharge, Elliott says. If a friend began to relapse, they would often recognize the signs in the person’s social media posts — or lack of posts — and reach out to check on one another.

“They often found intense connections with each other once in treatment. They were already drawn to connect with each other, and they wanted to continue that after they were discharged,” recalls Elliott, a doctoral student in counselor education at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). “This was huge for them, to stay in contact with one another through social media. … Social media has such a healing capability because it helps people connect and stay connected with each other.”

“When working with clients who have experienced extreme disconnection, via addiction, loss and grief, trauma or other ways, think of the power [social media] can have to bring people together and find connection,” Elliott continues. “In counseling, the relationship is key — we are relational creatures and drawn to connect. Think of how social media can be a connective intervention for clients.”

Getting up to speed

Counselors who aren’t familiar or comfortable with social media should think of it as “just one more way to connect with clients,” Elliott says.

“It’s our responsibility to keep up with it and how it is changing. It can be difficult to keep up with everything, but take that initiative to educate yourself on these platforms as much as you can,” Elliott urges. “For counselors who don’t feel as comfortable with technology, think of it as a creative intervention [to reach clients], and it might not be as intimidating.”

Giordano agrees, noting that counselors have a duty to bring themselves up to speed on social media to better help their clients. Having even a basic knowledge of the different platforms and their varying attributes will help practitioners ask the right questions to connect with clients,
she says.

“The best way is to ask clients, ‘What does it [a particular social media platform] do for you? Escape boredom? Find identity? Connect with peers?’ It’s really important to have a nonjudgmental view of it because, in large part, people have a good experience and find benefits,” Giordano says.

Counselors who want to learn more about social media can begin by doing an internet search on the different platforms and the terms they hear clients using in session. In some cases, counselors might want to consider creating a profile themselves so that they can log in and explore a platform further. Erin Mason, an LPC and assistant professor at Georgia State University, notes that some of the school counselors she knows have created TikTok accounts to better understand the video-sharing platform that is particularly popular among teens and young adults.

Mason, an ACA member, has maintained an active presence on Twitter, professionally, for nine years. She says it helps her stay up to date on trends and developments in the field of school counseling.

Riley recommends that counselors “stay open-minded and talk with someone in your personal or professional life who does use social media. Talk with your clients. Ask what draws them to it and what are some challenges that they’ve encountered. Hearing some firsthand perspective can help pull the wall down against social media,” she says. “[Social media] is a living, breathing, evolving entity, and because of that, there’s a place for everyone if you choose to look for it.

“If a client really loves TikTok, have them walk you through it: What do they like about it? What makes a good video [post]? What do they engage with the most? This helps open them up and tells you a lot about why and how they engage. … It gives you a better idea about their motivation, their mindset and their personality based on the type of platform and how they engage [with it].”

When it becomes a problem

There are no uniform diagnostic criteria for social media addiction, either in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) or through the World Health Organization or other agencies, Giordano notes. However, she says, it is estimated that between 5% and 10% of adults have a “problematic relationship” with social media — a prevalence that is comparable with most other behavioral addictions.

“What we know is that it’s prevalent among adolescents, adults and young adults across the globe,” Giordano says. “In the United States, researchers have found that almost 10% of undergrads have social media dependence.”

With that in mind, Giordano urges counselor clinicians to complete thorough assessments of clients’ relationships with social media. The frequency and amount of time they spend on the platforms are good places to start, but there are many more nuanced indicators to consider. Giordano recommends that practitioners check in with all adolescent and adult clients about their motives for engaging with social media, their compulsivity levels, how social media use affects their moods and the emotions that they associate with it. For example, does it disrupt their sleep cycles? Do they experience envy, a lack of belonging or self-loathing?

“When the client is not on social media, do they have an urge to check it? Are they craving it? Do they have FOMO [fear of missing out]? Is it creating anxiety when they’re not on it?” asks Giordano, co-author of an upcoming article on cyberbullying and adolescent social media use that will appear in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Counseling.

Practitioners should note that using social media while driving is a red flag that can indicate social media addiction, Giordano adds. There is also a documented link between social media use and nonsuicidal self-injury — so much so that many of the major platforms have created guidelines for banning photos and posts that glorify self-injury, she says.

Overall, people with poor regulation skills are at higher risk for social media addiction, Giordano says, whereas those who have healthy regulation skills are better able to self-regulate their emotions rather than relying on social media to manage their moods. Counselors should listen for the hallmarks of addiction in the ways that clients describe their social media use, she says. Among the possible warning signs are:

  • When clients’ social media use becomes compulsive and they find themselves checking it when they didn’t plan to
  • When clients have a loss of control, staying on social media longer than they intended
  • When clients continue to engage in the behavior even after experiencing negative consequences such as cyberbullying, family or relational conflict over their social media use, or disruptive sleep patterns

Practitioners can use several assessment tools and questionnaires to screen clients for social media addiction, Giordano notes. More information on these tools can be found in “Investigating psychometric properties of social media addiction measures among adolescents,” an article that Giordano co-wrote with Joshua C. Watson and Elizabeth A. Prosek for the October issue of the Journal of Counseling & Development.

Elliott emphasizes the importance of assessing each client individually because what a healthy relationship with social media looks like will differ for each person. “One client could say that they only use social media six hours per day — but they used to use it for 12. Shift your perspective to meet them where they’re at with their social media use, and don’t pathologize it. … Don’t have a set idea of what it would or should look like, thinking you know what’s best for them. Let them be the judge of how they interact with these platforms instead of us placing our perceptions on them,” says Elliott, who co-presented a session with Stacy Speedlin titled “Healing the Brave New World: Resolving Trauma Issues for Millennials Using Social Media” (available at aca.digitellinc.com/aca/sessions/18482/view) at the ACA 2019 Conference & Expo in New Orleans.

For Riley, a general indicator that a client has an unhealthy relationship with social media is when its use begins to interfere with the person’s daily life and functioning. If clients talk about choosing activities because they might result in posts or photos that will garner likes or attention on social media, that should prompt further questioning from the counselor, she says.

“It’s not as simple as the amount of time you spend on [social media]. That can be an indicator, but not necessarily. … Right now, with everyone at home [because of COVID-19], use will be higher,” Riley says. “If it’s impacting the time you [the client] are spending on self-care, or time with loved ones, being in nature or in your community, and you’re finding it’s taking time away from the things you want to do, then it might be approaching an unhealthy relationship. … Asking [clients] about their time spent on social media is a way to start the conversation. But from there, flesh out what is behind that. What is compelling them to spend so much time on social media?”

Cold turkey isn’t the answer

A recommendation that clients delete their social media accounts or discontinue their use altogether may be appropriate for the small percentage of individuals who truly struggle with social media addiction, Giordano says, but it might not be helpful — or even possible — for many other clients.

“There are a lot of benefits to social media, from building relationships and social connectivity to advocacy,” Giordano says. “The answer is not to stop using social media. The answer is for clients to take more control of their social media use so they’re not just going along with whatever impulses they have but [instead] being intentional.”

Counselor clinicians should also keep in mind that social media may be part of a client’s livelihood, adds Mason, so it would not be feasible for the person to quit the platforms entirely.

The same holds true in the realm of addictions recovery, notes Elliott, who counsels mostly adult clients at UTSA’s Sarabia Family Counseling Center, which offers free community services. Deleting one’s accounts would mean severing contact with those who support them during recovery. Social media “is often their lifeline to each other,” she says. “Say they relapse. It’s so important to have that network that they can plug back into. If they’ve deleted all their accounts, how are they going to do that?”

“I think the best way to help someone learn to have a healthy relationship with social media is [for them] to use it,” agrees Riley. “There can be instances where it can be helpful for clients to step back for a time, but for me it’s important to help them engage with it in a healthy way, and that’s not as easy if you go cold turkey.”

“I have a love-hate relationship with this idea, but social media is ingrained in our society,” Riley continues. “Not using it is lessening your engagement with the world, especially for those in rural or isolated areas. It’s a way to see the world without leaving your ZIP code and engage and learn from those who aren’t around you.”

Getting to the why

Researchers from Harvard University, in a November 2019 study published in Health Education & Behavior, found that routine use of social media could have positive health outcomes on social well-being, mental health and self-rated health. At the same time, researchers found that having an emotional connection to social media use could generate negative health outcomes, such as increased anxiety, depression, loneliness and FOMO.

Having a healthy relationship with social media involves understanding why one uses the platforms, and counselors can play a key role in helping clients explore that perspective. It’s most important for clients to decide on and create their own goals rather than counselors making suggestions, Giordano stresses.

“They probably already have people in their life telling them that they spend too much time on social media, so that’s not helpful to say. Instead, help them find their own motives for making change. From there, come from a nonjudgmental stance [and] use the client’s own motivation for making change rather than just imposing rules,” she says.

Giordano finds motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral techniques helpful when engaging in this work with clients, but she says that counselors can adapt whatever framework they prefer to address this issue.

Practitioners can start by helping clients “give voice” to the pros and cons of their social media use. Giordano suggests asking clients in session why they use it, what they like about it and what they wish they could get out of it.

Giordano notes that research studies on the function of social media in people’s lives have pinpointed that people turn to it to meet three main needs:

  • The need to belong
  • The need for self-presentation
  • The need for emotion regulation or mood modification

She suggests that practitioners ask clients about their thoughts and beliefs prior to using social media, during social media use and after social media use. Then, listen for language that could indicate deeper issues or maladaptive core beliefs that might be motivating clients’ behavior. For example, a client who struggles with self-esteem may mention feeling inadequate or self-critical if they don’t post a witty response to a friend’s post.

Elliott emphasizes that the client should be the driver in this process. “I’m a huge advocate for meeting clients where they’re at. If they’re presenting with negative side effects of social media or an unhealthy relationship with it, ask them about their relationship, what is its role in their life and how is it affecting them. Enhance that conversation instead of challenging it head-on. [If you say], ‘It sounds like you’re addicted to social media,’ that’s not going to help. Fall back on motivational interviewing techniques to have them evaluate what it is giving to them versus taking from them.

“Social media is good because you get to choose who you’re connected to. There’s so much freedom. A counselor can help with flipping that perspective: [Clients] have control of who they’re friends with and what they might see in their feed.”

Perspective shift

Counselors can help clients move toward intentionality and control over their social media use. A good way to start this process is to prompt clients to talk about what social media gives them and what it takes from them — and how or whether they’d like to change those benchmarks, Elliott says.

Elliott recalls one client with whom she worked at the residential treatment center in San Antonio. Social media was a prevalent part of the woman’s life, and she had more than 1,000 “friends” on Facebook.

Clients were not allowed to have cellphones while they were in recovery treatment. As this particular client neared discharge, Elliott allowed her to turn on her phone — for the first time in two months — as part of creating a social media plan in a session.

Elliott sat with the client as she went through her social media contact lists, blocking, unfollowing and severing ties with people who had previously been part of her life of substance abuse. Many of them had sent her messages, knowing full well she was in a recovery program, to ask her to contact them once she was out.

“If she had looked at those messages at the beginning of her treatment, she might not have stayed. There were a lot of unhealthy people in her life,” Elliott says. “It was a really important exercise to do. In hindsight, I can’t imagine what would have happened if we didn’t address this together. Would she have left treatment, turned on her phone and been bombarded with all these messages?”

Instead, in session, Elliott and the client talked about setting boundaries with social media and processed each friend decision together. They talked about why she wanted to block some people and unfollow yet remain connected with others — those to whom she could be a help, Elliott recalls.

The client also was able to add women from the treatment program to her social media accounts. This greatly broadened her pool of friends, adding people of different ages and backgrounds. The process represented “a complete reframe” for the woman as she exerted control over her social media and decided what role she wanted it to play in her life and her healing moving forward, Elliott says.

This process was often part of creating social media plans with clients at the facility, Elliott says. She served as a support as clients deleted or began to follow accounts, set boundaries and rethought their social media use.

For example, if a client followed a page that glorified drug use, such as the account of an artist or musician, Elliott and the client would process that choice together. “I would talk it through with them: ‘How will it affect you to see that? If so, what are you going to do about it?’ We would evaluate which of these things [the people and pages the client followed] are worth it to them and which things aren’t, as well as knowing their triggers and making a plan for if they were triggered by social media. For example, ‘What if you go on to social media and find that someone has passed away [from an overdose]?’ I would talk all of that through with clients.”

Setting boundaries

Exerting control over one’s relationship with social media often involves setting boundaries and limits. Counselor clinicians can support clients in this process by helping them create a social media plan in counseling sessions. Giordano says this can be particularly helpful for adolescent clients, who may benefit from writing down parameters to which they can refer back outside of sessions.

Social media plans should delineate specific times that clients do not want to use social media, such as during mealtimes, while driving, right after waking up in the mornings or within two hours of going to bed at night, says Giordano, who is writing a book on behavioral addictions that is slated to be published next year. Part of a client’s social media plan might include deciding not to engage in phubbing, a term for when people are glued to their smartphones while gathered together with others — in essence, snubbing people in favor of their phone.

Offering psychoeducation about the triggering aspects of social media can also be helpful during this process, Giordano says. For example, discussing the brain’s dopamine response to a phone’s notification alerts might lead clients to deactivate the notifications for their social media apps. Similarly, explaining how the blue light emitted from digital screens can disrupt sleep cycles might prompt some clients to set a goal of putting their phones in another room when they sleep, thus removing the temptation to check it while in bed.

There are also numerous apps and programs available that limit the amount of time a user can spend on a particular website, including social media. Giordano recommends an app called Offtime, whereas Mason uses Freedom, which is available both as an app and a Chrome plugin. In both cases, the user selects the amount of time they’d like to allow themselves to use certain sites each day, or they have the option to block sites entirely.

“One of the things that makes social media so different from reading a book or watching a movie is that a book and a movie have a set end. With social media, you can scroll without end, so you have to be intentional,” Giordano says. “Clients and counselors can decide [as part of making a social media plan] to only use social media when the results are positive and to do emotional check-ins on how using social media is making them feel.”

 

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Social media and youth: Taking a proactive role as a counselor

For counselors who work with young clients or in school settings, part of staying up to date with social media includes becoming knowledgeable about cyberbullying, says Erin Mason, an assistant professor at Georgia State University.

Cyberbullying, or harassment via digital means, including through social media, is a complex topic. It can take place both during and outside of the school day and both on and outside of school property. In school settings, the responsibilities of counselors and administrators regarding cyberbullying can vary significantly from school to school, as can the consequences imposed on students, notes Mason, who was previously a school counselor.

Mason recommends that counselors visit Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org) to stay updated on the latest trends in social media and its use among children and adolescents. The site’s many resources include detailed descriptions and ratings of TV shows, movies, apps, video games and other media for parents and educators.

Mason emphasizes that counselors need to take a proactive role — rather than a punitive one — when it comes to cyberbullying. Efforts should go toward fostering a healthy school culture that includes a focus on positive social-emotional behavior, she says.

“Counselors need to be really vigilant about what’s trending at their schools. Sometimes the trends start in schools and then filter out and become problems in lots of places [in the community],” Mason says. “This is where partnerships are really important — partnering with other school staff, local police and families, and making sure everyone’s on the same page with what’s happening.”

In a trend that was brought to Mason’s attention by one of her graduate students, a problem arose at a school where students were exchanging and sharing messages via Google Docs. The students would type a message and change the font color to white so that any parent or school staff person who intercepted the document would just see a blank page. This method was a way to conceal cyberbullying among students, Mason says.

“Kids figure out the workarounds, ways to trick the system or at least trick the adults,” Mason says. “It’s a lot for educators to stay on top of, and it’s a lot for families to stay on top of.”

On the flip side of the coin, Mason says she has seen social media used as a positive tool in schools. One of her colleagues was running a small group for female students in high school that was focused on empowerment, confidence and positive body image. She created a Pinterest board, and the teens were able to “pin” inspiring quotes and positive messages to share with one another. This activity bolstered the group’s cohesion, Mason says. The young women would add to the board outside of sessions, and the group would discuss the posts when they met in person.

“Some of this comes down to generational differences, and I wonder if over time we will see more of a shift in understanding how social media and these kinds of tools can be helpful, because they are so integrated in people’s lives,” Mason says. “Over time, the negatives won’t diminish, but the advantages will begin to outweigh the negatives, and counselors have a role to play in that — with families and in school settings. We need to be thinking about how social media can contribute positively to school environments.”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

ACA Code of Ethics (counseling.org/resources/aca-code-of-ethics)

  • Section H: Distance Counseling, Technology and Social Media

Continuing education

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.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.

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