Tag Archives: social media

The age of isolation: How Instagram memes describe a lonely generation

By Adriana V. Cornell July 26, 2018

Instagram tells millions of stories. Many exhibit our personal daily moments, and, from a wider lens, others describe entire populations and social movements. With 800 million users, Instagram is one of the biggest and richest collections of societal data on the planet. We can learn a lot by noticing what these users choose to showcase personally and which accounts and posts they choose to follow. Lately, I’ve been paying attention to the latter.

Of course, Instagram has grown since its conception, from personal accounts to brand accounts. It seems every business, school, group, dog and fetish now has an Instagram account. “Celebrities” — foodies, beauty experts, daredevils, singers, comedians and more — are born on Instagram.

In the past year, I’ve been following a few comedic accounts that display almost exclusively memes. A “meme” comes from the concept of memetic theory, championed by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Just as genetics connote characteristics passed from generation to generation, memetics refer to cultural ideas transferred from person to person. A meme spreads quickly because it can reproduce itself, jumping from mind to mind and therefore driving cultural influences across the globe. According to the theory, genetics and memetics are similarly affected by Darwinian rules of evolution: Their success is subject to their contribution to the effectiveness of the person carrying them.

Memes can concern any content, but the “units of culture” I have been focusing on seem to be targeting people in their mid- to late 20s who are still navigating the transition from youth to adulthood. I’ve noticed a trend in these memes that seems both disturbing and completely normal.

Here are a few that have been featured and reproduced on multiple accounts:

 

 

 

Posts of this kind receive an immense “ovation” of likes, comments and shares. More than 250,000 people liked the first meme, and more than 14,000 commented. Most comments “at” (or link) a friend’s account, inviting him or her to view the same post, and they remark together on the accuracy and truth of the message. These comments include:

“haha, us literally.”

“Lol my life story.”

“So accurate.”

“Us every day, all day.”
“Literally EVERY f*cking time, without fail…! Millennials & bad drivers make being an agoraphobe so much easier nowadays!”

 

Most memes display simply black Arial font on a white background; they seem to rely entirely on the words that compose them. Others feature text accompanied by graphics, pictures or GIFs, such as this one:

 

But even as memes become flashier and more complex with recycled photos or videos, the rule of Darwinian evolution remains critical: The success of memes depends on the effectiveness of the person carrying them — in this case, the account holder. The popularity of a meme, evidenced in the comments section, seems to multiply if the account holder’s caption provides funny, insightful, witty commentary on the meme: in essence, a meme upon a meme.

For example, in the third meme, an account holder captioned the image with: “I’m At Lunch Not Talking To The Person I’m With, But Instead Looking At A Facebook Photo Of The Lunch Belonging To A Girl I Haven’t Seen Since […] 2007.”

This caption — using a relatable, all-too-real anecdote — brings new life and humor to a recycled post. It successfully reproduces the memetic, refueling the cultural influence and giving it new shape before it is passed on.

Users react accordingly, many of them employing the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji as they comment specifically on the caption:

“Hahaha omg ur caption”

“the caption!!!”

“what if ur sitting with a really boring person at lunch”

“hahaha the caption tho”

 

I simultaneously find myself laughing about and relating deeply to these memes and their captions. Even if my feelings don’t agree in the moment, many of the messages tap into emotions, reactions or thoughts that I’ve certainly had. I have wished that plans would fall through. I have spent too much time scrolling through Facebook. And I have used emojis and exclamations in text that I would never say or emote in real life.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but feel disturbed by these messages and the amount of praise and endorsement they receive. They are all deeply sad and negative in tone and content because they seem to connote a total lack of feeling, social inclination and zest for life, yet at the same time, the need to be liked, included and embraced.

For this reason, I started saving memes of this kind to a “collection” — an optional, user-controlled repository for images on Instagram — that I titled “Oxymoron.” The contradiction of craving and simultaneously rejecting social interaction became an apparent theme that puzzled me. I started asking myself and lots of other (mostly 20-something) people: What’s going on here?

Some friends, while acknowledging that we’re naturally social animals, offered a simple answer. “After working a 12-hour day, that desire to socialize becomes secondary to my need for sleep,” Kelly, 28, explained. “I’m so happy if plans fall through because I feel exhausted by the idea of devoting any more energy to anything in my day.” Others echoed similar ideas and sentiments.

But this explanation didn’t seem to capture the full picture, and it seemed even my busy friends agreed. As our email exchanges developed, so did our ideas about other possible contributors to what seems like an age of isolation, neediness and sadness. After all, depression rates for teens and young adults are higher than ever (12.7 percent as of 2015, according to Psychological Medicine). The chief perpetrators, we concluded: social media and smartphones.

 

Socializing without the authentic self

Comedy is successful when it shamelessly and nakedly brings to light the truest feelings we all possess but don’t readily admit to or talk about. It can be an immensely satisfying relief to hear our private thoughts, habits and emotions exposed and articulated in an anonymous way that lets us know we’re not the only ones experiencing them — that we’re not alone.

And we will do anything to avoid feeling lonely. We will maintain friendships that we don’t enjoy. We will agree to plans that we don’t look forward to. We will stay in relationships that make us unhappy. We will join gangs, extremist groups and cults. In studying our basic human needs, Abraham Maslow determined that we will even sacrifice our safety for the sake of belonging, as evidenced, for example, by children who cling to abusive parents.

Loneliness is deadly. According to research conducted by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, loneliness has the same effects on our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is more fatal than obesity.

Conveniently, smartphones have given us a tool to dismiss and evade feelings of loneliness quickly and with little effort. Texting, of course, provides the sense of company and togetherness in any and every moment. But even scrolling feeds on Facebook or Instagram can make us feel invited into the lives of friends whom we might not readily meet up with or call.

“We know that engagement with social media and our cell phones releases a chemical called dopamine,” noted Simon Sinek in a 2016 interview on Inside Quest. “That’s why when you get a text, it feels good. It’s why we text 10 friends when we’re feeling a bit lonely, a bit sad. … It’s why we count the ‘likes’ on our Instagram.” And we can do all of this without getting off the couch, without putting on fresh clothes and — best of all — without actually speaking to anyone.

Because socializing in person, face-to-face, is hard. We’re required — in real time — not only to process and listen to what others are saying, but then also to compose (witty, sensible, empathetic, affirming, interesting) comments in reply, sensitive to the situation, conversation and environment. All the while, we must align our facial expressions to the context and content, some of which changes by the second. If live conversation can be described, as it often is, as “dancing,” then texting or using social media might be described as a card game. Both require thought and strategy, but in-person communication demands spontaneity. It commands us to be our authentic selves.

But that can be complicated and challenging. What if we don’t like who we are? What if we don’t know who we are?

The pressure to be perfect has never been more intense. In his 2015 bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari wrote, “If you are a teenager today, you are a lot more likely to feel inadequate. … Even if the other guys at school are an ugly lot, you don’t measure yourself against them, but against the movie stars, athletes, and supermodels you see all day on television, Facebook and giant billboards.”

Social media allows us to craft, edit, filter and recraft ourselves so that we can come closer to this ideal. We can even consult friends before we reply to a text or post a photo, giving us the ability to depict the (airbrushed) story we wish to tell. But allowing real-time spontaneity to eventually and inevitably reveal who we really are can feel risky and terrifying.

Brené Brown boils this down to a deep aversion to vulnerability. Because we are social animals, we need to feel connected and a sense of belonging in order to survive. “Connection is why we’re here,” Brown said in her 2010 TED Talk. “It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”

And it is the fear of disconnection, Brown asserts, that often makes us feel the most challenging feelings, like vulnerability and shame.

 

A downward spiral of loneliness

The memes I have observed and collected are popular because they send the message that putting ourselves out there is not worth the risk. No one else is going out; why should you? Why let yourself feel judged, offended or not good enough?

But “for connection to happen,” Brown continues, “we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Really seen. …When we numb vulnerability, we numb joy, gratitude, happiness.” We must accept who we are and embrace vulnerability. People who are most connected, Brown found, “were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were. You have to do that for connection.”

The concern that has nagged me over the past year is that these memes openly reject this kind of self-exposure and authenticity, essentially instructing us to give in to our fear of vulnerability. This not only prevents others from knowing us, it prevents us from knowing ourselves. We get stuck, therefore, in a developmental stage that looks and feels a lot like adolescence — afraid of judgment, lacking self-confidence and without a sense of true belonging.

Another distinct and crucial feature of face-to-face conversation is the opportunity for touch. A pat on the back, caress on the arm, stroke of the hair or hold of the hand is essential to our mental and physical well-being. “Being touched increases the number of natural killer cells, the frontline of the immune system,” says Tiffany Field, founder of the Touch Research Institute at Miami Medical School. “Serotonin increases. That’s the body’s natural antidepressant.”

Deprivation of the sensation of touch from another human often results in feelings of isolation, social exclusion and depression. What’s more, these feelings make people fearful and put them “into a kind of defensive state where the levels of cortisol [the hormone released by the brain in times of stress] are raised,” says Kellie Payne, researcher at the Campaign to End Loneliness. “Having had negative experiences, they anticipate that their connection with people will also be negative, which makes it hard to reinstate contact.”

In short, lonely people can get trapped in a downward spiral of loneliness. These memes tap into and perpetuate this vulnerability, actively discouraging ambition, social connection and productivity.

Fortunately, our brains are resourceful; they find alternative ways to satisfy our needs. For many, this compensation is happily found in communicating via text message and social media. That dose of dopamine can be the fix we need in sad or lonely moments so that, with the approval and company of tens of thousands, we can quickly wipe them away.

Returning to Maslow, these memes, therefore, allow us to reach the two highest orders of human need: esteem (being accepted and valued by others) and self-actualization (reaching our full potential; being all we can be).

The problem is that this solution is shallow, artificial and temporary. Because although it feels like we’re raising unspoken issues of loneliness and depression, and relating to others when we like or comment on these memes, we’re not actually facing our feelings or each other, or talking about them in a way that allows us to be honest, authentic or vulnerable. At the end of the day, the humor used in these memes is merely numbing and normalizing some of our deepest and truest emotions by providing a false sense of togetherness and belonging that inevitably lets us down.

But because “connecting” to others via social media has become so easy and satisfying, like any dopamine producer, it is highly addictive. We’re no longer willing to devote energy, time and effort to our relationships (or any project) because it is —comparatively — too hard.

In other words, social media has yet to find a way to produce serotonin: a far more gratifying, long-lasting and pleasure-inducing hormone. Serotonin provides a sense of relationship, allegiance and pride after dedicating time and effort to a project or task that transcends selfish motivations. But when a meme caption says: “If you do anything interesting or important today, you can go f**k yourself,” we’re excused from trying. Instant gratification has overtaken meaningful, lasting reward, and dopamine has overtaken serotonin.

And just as any addiction — drugs, food, sex — is, by definition, extremely satisfying in the first stages, it often loses appeal, allure and thrill as it becomes more intense and demanding. The craving or desire becomes a need or chore, and we in turn become a slave to our addiction. These memes and apps such as Instagram are designed not only to “rescue” us in times of loneliness or sadness, but to draw us in constantly, at all times of day and night.

“That itch to glance at our phone is a natural reaction to apps and websites engineered to get us scrolling as frequently as possible,” wrote Bianca Bosker in a 2016 edition of The Atlantic. “In short, we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.”

When we are or feel controlled, we lose our sense of self and self-worth — our ability to produce, invent and create. The majority of Instagram users are merely consumers of information; only a small percentage of users are actually creating the message, the humor and the trend. It requires far less thought and effort to simply “at” a friend or double tap to “like” a photo than it does to lean in and think about and interact with society so that we can create our own ideas — or even just talk to one another about them.

 

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Adriana V. Cornell has spent the past two years living in Nairobi, Kenya, working as a school counselor and college counselor at an international school. She has worked primarily with high school students and has focused her writing and research on students in transition and social media. She moved back to the United States with her husband in July. Contact her at adriana.v.cornell@gmail.com.

 

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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.

Counseling Connoisseur: Thanatechnology – Grief and loss in a digital world

By Cheryl Fisher June 8, 2018

Thanatechnology: Any kind of technology that can be used to deal with death, dying, grief, loss and illness.

 

Kelly (an alias), an eighth-grader, sits with her friends in the school auditorium as her principal calls out the names of each of her classmates who were killed in the recent shooting. To honor the lives of these young people, the school is hosting a remembrance ceremony. As tears run down her face, Kelly huddles close to her schoolmates and clicks away on her phone posting messages on several social network sites and a memorial site that she and her friends created. A text message pops up from a boy she met on one of the sites. He is a survivor of a school shooting that happened a couple of years ago — he understands.

Tony’s (alias) phone vibrates, rousing him from his slumber. He looks at the clock – it’s 2 a.m. He has to be up for school in just a few hours. He squints, trying to read the alert on his phone. Another teenager has died from drug overdose. He heaves a mournful sigh and turns on the bedside lamp. His phone begins to blow up with social media posts. The deceased didn’t attend his school but is related to his girlfriend’s best friend. Tony attempts to return to sleep, but he keeps thinking about the teenager [and] wondering why it happened.

Without a doubt, the youth of today are often exposed to significant and traumatic losses. Traditionally, we have marked death with rituals such as funerals and memorials and grieved with the support of counseling, faith communities and neighbors. In more recent years, technology has provided additional ways to remember and mourn, such as creating online memorials, seeking distant or virtual grief counseling and connecting with family, friends and even strangers without geographical limitations. It erases time and distance and allows for virtual experiences and expressions that promote a narrative that lives forever.

Digital Presence and Youth

In Dying, Death, and Grief in an Online Universe, researchers Kathleen R. Gilbert and Michael Massimi observe that digital technology can “bring people together for social support, provide information, and offer a venue for conducting grief work such as telling stories or building digital memorials.”

In another section of the book, researcher Carla Sofka writes that young people are even more likely to seek grief support online. Sofka explains that the internet, social media and other digital platforms are where younger generations are most comfortable because they provide opportunities for social interaction; a sense of independence and privacy; the ability to express and form their own identity; a sense of community that includes those that are marginalized; and instant alerts and communication. All of these elements allow youth to seek and find like-minded communities that can provide immediate support and strategies for coping with myriad life issues — including death and dying, and grief and loss.

 

Social Interaction

Online bereavement forums and chat rooms provide a sense of social connection with users. Sites such as Caring Bridge allow multiple users to maintain a virtual journal offering information and capturing narratives that are accessible to members. Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram create spaces where youth can just “hang out.” Video calling technology such as FaceTime and Skype bridge the distance between users and promote interaction and communication. Additionally, grief counseling may be offered via video, phone, chat or email formats.

Independence and Sense of Privacy

Teens turn to technology to carve out a private space for self-expression. However, research indicates that internet use often provides the illusion of anonymity, which may encourage a false sense of privacy. The struggle for privacy is nothing new: The tension between privacy and personal expression has existed between teens and parents for decades. In It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, danah boyd*, principal researcher at Microsoft Research notes that social media introduced a new dimension to this age-old power struggle. Instead of worrying about what teens wear outside, parents are concerned about what pictures teens are posting about what they wear outside.

[*boyd prefers to spell her name with lowercase letters.]

“Although teens grapple with managing their identity and navigating youth-centric communities while simultaneously maintaining spaces for intimacy, they do so under the spotlight of a media ecosystem designed to publicize every teen fad, moral panic, and new hyped technology,” writes boyd.

Yet, online spaces allow for exploration of feelings and thoughts, examination of death anxiety, and expression of grief and loss. For example, a 14 year- old client crafted an entire mix of music and prose around the complicated emotions she experienced related to the death of her estranged father who had abused her as a little girl. Using an alias, she posted the eulogy online and watched as strangers connected with her, validating her feelings and experience.

Expression and Influence of Identity Formation

The internet provides creative space for expressing grief and honoring loved ones. Sites such as KIDSAID.com, offer children the opportunity to connect, interact and creatively express their grief. In addition to expressive sites and online memorial services such as Legacy, Remembered.com and Your Tribute provide an unfettered opportunity to honor loss, especially for those who are marginalized or disenfranchised. The use of letters, photos and sound provide rich and detailed memorials that allow users to express their grief, absorb their loss and ultimately move forward.

Sense of Community

Blogs provide a venue to capture experiences and to cultivate topic-based virtual communities. Boyd suggests that these constructed networks serve as a public place to interact with real and imagined communities, thus satisfying a desire to be part of a broader world.

Instant Alerts

Online communication is often in real time. Twitter, Snapchat and a variety of other digital sites offer instant notifications and ongoing engagement. Technology allows users to gather multiple streams of almost instantaneous information from afar. For example, recently I was at a social gathering where a young woman, glued to her phone, was continuously texting. At one point I interjected, “Is everything alright?” She looked up and shook her head. “No, I have a friend who was just in a car accident and the medics are transporting her to shock trauma. Her parents are on their way to the hospital — but no one thinks she’s going to make it.”

The accident occurred in another state, yet this young woman was experiencing the event minute by minute via her phone messaging.

There are numerous attractive features to thanatechnology. Information is persistent and endures. There is a sense of immortality and legacy when a person’s comments, photos and work is posted in cyberspace. It is visible to infinite numbers of individuals. It is spreadable, and with one repost or share, hundreds more are invited into our experience. It is searchable. Just yesterday someone emailed me after reading my article on pet loss and grief. She had been Googling information about pet loss and my article popped up. I was able to provide her with additional support resources.

While there are many helpful aspects of using technology for grief support, there are some serious causes for pause. Are the online interactions healthy? Who is actually participating in the network communities? Are youth oversharing personal information while in a vulnerable state? How pervasive are social divisions and are they perpetuated in the participating forums?

Clinicians, parents and educators must be digitally literate and provide opportunities for genuine face to face connection while acknowledging the cyberworld of teens. Using technology during this very vulnerable time can provide tremendous support and healing, but it may pose risks. Counselors have the responsibility to help youth develop the skills to navigate technology in a way that creates a safe environment for their grief experience and promotes bereavement support.

 

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling.  Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy: and geek therapy. She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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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.

#disconnected: Why counselors can no longer ignore social media

By Laurie Meyers April 30, 2018

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.”

Giving guidance

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.”

 

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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.

 

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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:

Podcasts (counseling.org/knowledge-center/podcasts)

  • “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

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor:ct@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.

Technology Tutor: Starting the year off on the right technological foot

By Rob Reinhardt March 6, 2017

Many of us are aware of the ebb and flow of people seeking counseling services. Around the holidays and the beginning of the school year, more calls come in for help. During the summer, things slow down a bit.

Having provided technology consultation to mental health clinicians for seven years now, I’ve noticed some patterns myself. One that stands out is that many counselors in private practice seem to take stock in the business and technology side of their practices as we transition into the new year. I’ve reached this conclusion by looking at the significant rise in the number of emails and phone calls I receive each year at the beginning of January.

With that in mind, I present some of the top business and technology challenges and questions that counselors have been addressing lately. Some of these may not apply to every counselor, whereas others are items we should all be taking care of.

HIPAA compliance

Now is a great time to revisit your compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). HIPAA is not a one-and-done kind of thing. It requires that you periodically review your risk analysis and management plans, as well as your policies and procedures. Assuming that you already have completed at least an initial risk analysis, a review can be done fairly quickly. The following are some primary tasks to cover.

  • Review your current risk analysis and remove technology that is no longer used to store or transmit protected health information (PHI).
  • Of the items remaining, ensure that the level of risk presented by those technologies hasn’t changed and that your current methods for managing risk are still effective and appropriate.
  • Now be sure to add any new technologies that might be missing. It’s always best to add new items to your risk management plan as they are implemented in your practice. Making sure that you cover all bases to catch anything that slipped through the cracks is a prudent measure.

If you’re not sure what all of this risk management and analysis means, check out my blog article on the Tame Your Practice site for additional information (bit.ly/HIPAArisk).

Encrypted communications

Both HIPAA and the ACA Code of Ethics (see Standard H.2.d) require counselors to use encryption to secure PHI, including communications with clients, whenever it is reasonable. The truth is that, these days, it’s almost always reasonable to use encryption.

Encrypted email is inexpensive to implement, and although it isn’t always quite as user friendly as unencrypted options, sometimes the cost of privacy is a bit of inconvenience. It’s like those extra seconds you take to turn on the sound machine outside your office — it can really make a measurable difference.

Both the ACA Code of Ethics and HIPAA also provide for client autonomy, which means clients can choose for PHI to be transmitted through unsecured means. It is important to note, however, that this requires that clients have been informed of and understand the risks. It is also important to evaluate whether we should really consider risking confidentiality, either out of convenience or for the sake of saving a few dollars a month. Roy Huggins of Person-Centered Tech makes a great case for why it makes sense to follow through with encrypting email and text (bit.ly/encryptornot).

Want to see how easy it is to use encrypted email? I included a demonstration video in the following blog post: bit.ly/emailencrypt.

Social media policy

Now is also a great time to make sure that you’re satisfying the requirements of Standard H.6. of the ACA Code of Ethics pertaining to social media presence and use. If you are utilizing social media (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.), the ethics code requires that you:

  • Maintain a separate personal and professional presence. This relates to our responsibility to avoid engaging in dual relationships. This means taking actions such as creating a professional Facebook page.
  • Incorporate social media into your informed consent. We have a responsibility to inform our clients of the “benefits, limitations and boundaries of the use of social media” (Standard H.6.b.). Depending on how you engage in social media use and marketing, this may vary according to the platform you are using. It is important for clients to understand, for example, the potential benefits and ramifications of them “liking” your professional Facebook page, such as their friends seeing that they liked your page and the kinds of online advertisements that will be displayed to them as a result of liking your page.
  • Maintain client confidentiality by not disclosing information about them online. Also respect their online privacy unless they provide consent to view that information. I strongly encourage you to read my September Technology Tutor column on the dangers of online disclosure (ct.counseling.org/2016/08/thinking-discussing-clients-online-think-twice/). It’s not as simple as making sure that you don’t use identifying information.

An excellent way to address this is to develop a social media policy that you can then incorporate as part of the client orientation/informed consent process. Keely Kolmes offers a wonderful template as a starting point (drkkolmes.com/social-media-policy/).

Business and technology evaluation

Even if you have all of the above buttoned up nicely, it’s always a good idea to evaluate your business operations at least once per year. Is what you are doing working? Could it be improved? Can you implement technology, streamline processes or align your efforts to better move toward your goals? This is also a great opportunity to examine the return on investment (bit.ly/ROITYP) on things you’ve already implemented. Are you getting the expected results?

You’ll find plenty of freely available articles at the Tame Your Practice website (tameyourpractice.com) on these topics and more if you need additional details.

 

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Rob Reinhardt, a licensed professional counselor supervisor, is a private practice and business consultant who helps counselors create and maintain efficient, successful private practices. Before becoming a professional counselor, he worked as a software developer and director of information technology. Contact him at rob@tameyourpractice.com.

Letters to the editor:ct@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.

Nonprofit News: Avoiding client disclosure on social media

By “Doc Warren” Corson III February 13, 2017

To many people, social media is the best thing since the abacus, transforming the way we live and do business. It offers us a world of knowledge with the stroke of a few keys and the briefest of pauses.

Of course, social media can be both a tool and a crutch that leads to sloppy habits. With the advent of clinician-centered discussion groups on Facebook and other online and social media sites that cater solely to clinical professionals, clinicians are posting an increasing amount of client-related information, sometimes going beyond what the ACA Code of Ethics and relevant laws allow. These clinicians are potentially leaving their clients vulnerable, while leaving themselves and their employers open to ethical complaints and legal suits.

The discussions that were once the domain of individual or group supervision now can be found on any number of social media platforms designed for counselors. Some of these posts come from clinicians from large programs, while others originate with those who are in private or small group practices. Perhaps this shows a lack of experience and knowledge combined with little to no supervision or oversight. I haven’t been able to find a comprehensive study that helps shed light on this topic.

Whatever the cause, accusations that a client’s privacy has been violated can lead to charges of malpractice (and other charges) being filed against the clinician and his or her employer. Comprehensive training followed by regular refreshers could do much to reduce this type of liability.

 

A problem since the early days of the internet

Since the advent of the internet and online bulletin boards (the precursors to Listservs, social media and online groups), there have been issues trying to balance new technology with privacy. About a decade ago, I briefly ran an online group for clinical professionals that was designed so that we could discuss general issues and concerns related to the counseling profession. Sometimes the discussion turned to challenging client cases. Several people, including David Kaplan, chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association, raised questions about this issue. A good-hearted, if sometimes heated, debate took place on these threads, and some very differing opinions were presented. It ultimately did little, however, to change the content of the postings. Within months, I was no longer affiliated with the online discussion group, in large part because of concerns I had about potential ethical violations.

I recently contacted David Kaplan again (he is still in the same role with ACA) to get his opinion on this topic. He agreed that it has been a long-standing issue and that, for both ethical and legal reasons, client information should never be posted on social media. To me, the most powerful thing he said was, “The key for me is the statement at the end [of the ACA Connect site rules and etiquette page]: ‘Please ensure that you phrase your post in a manner that does not describe an actual client.’”

Rather than listing several pages of links to ethical codes, state and federal laws, and the like, I will share the applicable rules and etiquette section from ACA Connect, ACA’s online communities that encourage discussion between counseling professionals.

“Do not present aspects of a case even if the client’s name is not given. Posts that give details about a specific client will be removed. Due to the potential violation of both the ACA Code of Ethics, state and/or federal law, case consultation is not allowed on ACA Connect. It is not permissible to present aspects of a case on a counseling listserv or online forum even if the client’s name is not given. Information shared by a client and clinical impressions must be afforded the same level of confidentiality as the name of the client. Describing a client’s presenting problem, diagnosis, or clinical treatment approach through listservs or online forums – even if the client’s name is not given – is a violation of confidentiality. It is perfectly fine to discuss issues (e.g., asking, ‘Does anyone have any resources on eating disorders in male wrestlers?’ or, ‘Does anyone have a referral to a specialist in PTSD in the Boston area?’), but please ensure that you phrase your post in a manner that does not describe an actual client.”

Owners, overseers, monitors and associated workers of online professional sites, Listserves, groups on social media and other platforms, be they volunteer or paid, could benefit greatly by posting rules that are similar to those above. The enforcement of those rules would prove invaluable.

 

Examples of violations

What follows are some examples of posts that, although they are well-meaning, could potentially lead to ethics or legal charges. (These examples are inspired by actual posts but are not being shared verbatim because I do want not to spread liability or bring possible embarrassment to the original posters; this article is about education, not shaming or embarrassing my fellow clinicians who work hard daily to assist those in their care).

  • “Hi all. I’m looking to make a referral for marriage counseling for a couple that has been married for 14 years. There have been multiple affairs by the stay-at-home husband while his wife was working in the insurance industry. She works till 6 p.m., so evening sessions are a must. They are in the Springfield area and have XYZ insurance.”
  • “I have a client who is 14 years old, has a history of cutting and has recently regressed after her parents told her and her twin brother that they are divorcing. She had also disclosed that she feels she may be bisexual. Any resources that may assist me in treating her would be greatly appreciated.”
  • “OK, so I have this client I’ll call ‘Will.’ I’ve worked with him for several years in my private practice in Newport News. He’s a retired steamfitter and the father of three young adults — two male and one female. Recently, the daughter called me to tell me that she noticed that some of her underwear is missing and suspects that he may have taken them and is possibly wearing them. She doesn’t want to talk to him about this but wants me to explore this in my next session with him. Any suggestions as to how I should approach this with him?”

 

Ways to avoid a violation

  • “Hi all. I’m looking to increase my referral list and am looking for clinicians in the Springfield area who have evening session times and take XYZ insurance. Experience with familial issues would be a plus.”
  • “I’m looking for resources for working with teens who cut and also for sexuality related issues. Thanks!”
  • In my opinion, the third example is beyond paraphrasing. It shows the need for good supervision even when in private practice. The information provided would make it easy to identify this family, even in a city that has a large shipyard.

 

Social media is not a replacement for supervision

In an increasingly connected world, it is important to remember that social media cannot replace the ethical requirement for supervision and it should not be treated as such. Joining these online/social media discussion sites for clinicians can make us feel more connected and less isolated professionally. They can help build a referral base and can help us to plan social events, but they are simply unsuitable for case consults.

Many of us employ a “we are all on the same team” mindset, and that can do much to help our profession. At the same time, we need to remember that seeking advice on these online/social media websites will never be the equal of calling the clinician in the office next to you and doing a case consult. Our clients are counting on us to keep their lives private; our ethics code and laws related to our profession are here to ensure that we do just that.

If you are in a small practice, be it group or individual, for-profit or nonprofit, be sure to have a solid source for clinical supervision and consultation that falls well within industry standards. This not only helps protect our clients, but also protects us against potential legal and ethical violations.

 

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Dr. Warren Corson III

“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling Centers of Central CT Inc. (www.docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.pillwillop.org). Contact him at docwarren@docwarren.org. Additional resources related to nonprofit design, documentation and related information can be found at docwarren.org/supervisionservices/resourcesforclinicians.html.

 

 

 

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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.