Workshop offers advice on teens and social media
By Lou Fancher
In years past, young people seeking wisdom often turned to their elders, mountain treks, gods or the stars. In the internet era, teens turn to Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and other social media.
With the proliferation of social media platforms that tip the scales with unprecedented volume and technological razzle dazzle, the difference between real or reliable information and “fake news” is difficult to discern.
What’s a parent or a teen to do to find safe, wise counsel?
A free workshop Nov. 8 hosted by Axis Community Health features a keynote presentation by family coach Sean Donohue. The 90-minute “Parents, Teens & Screens” interactive workshop held at the Livermore Library addresses pivotal issues facing teens and their parents: How to hold healthy conversations about social media; tools and rules for safe and sage in-home use of mobile devices; science-based facts about the physical and psychological effects of technology on teen brains.
Axis, a nonprofit founded in 1972, offers at its five locations medical, mental health and substance abuses services. A health and wellness for teens pilot program at four Livermore schools is facilitated by Ariel Fuchs, Axis Health primary prevention educator.
Feedback Fuchs has received from students during the program’s first weeks indicates that setting boundaries is a priority. Teens get most of their information about drugs and alcohol from social media and peers; not from adults or medical professionals.
Initiating conversations with their parents is most difficult. The pilot program helps students to establish opinions and principles before that conversation begins. “We talk about social and emotional issues,” Fuchs said. “What are good listening skills? What are my values? How do I handle conflict?”
Conflict, suggests Donohue, is avoided when kind, thoughtful, informed and “chill” groundwork is laid by a parent. “The purpose of conversation isn’t to create a hostile environment. It’s to help parents and teens be in agreement as best they can,” he says, about the techniques presented and practiced in the workshop.
The five-minute-teach, five-minute-try-it-out interactive format gets everyone talking. “I give them guidelines to communicate in healthy ways. I talk, then they talk about what I just talked about. The cycle repeats: Parents and teens talk effectively.”
The sounds-simple formula begs a question: Why, if it’s that easy, are parent-teen conversations about social media, mobile devices, video games and other tech-related activities frequently contentious?
“Parents share their concerns and feelings but teenagers either check out because it’s a speech they’ve heard before, or the parents aren’t teaching wisdom,” said Donohue. “Parents are doing the best they can, but they’re still naive about what’s happening in online teen culture.”
What’s happening online can be positive, negative, educational or incredibly dangerous. Asked if the average parent is alert to scientific studies that prove social media has negative impact on teen depression, anxiety and psychological development, Donohue says, “No. A million percent no. Most parents have no clue that these devices have been proven to cause psychological damage. They don’t know the average teen spends 11 hours a day online, that the more teens play video games, the lower their levels of self-esteem.”
FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, affirms Donohue. In his work as a family counselor, he’s learned that teens who talk with their parents about social media tend to share positive moments that come up in their online feeds. What teens worry about, but have difficulty discussing, are their friends and peers who in online posts glamorize drugs or harmful behaviors.
Donohue says the best indicator of whether or not a teen will speak about social media with a parent is the parent. “If the parent doesn’t talk about it respectfully, kindly, without judgement, the teen will check out. No parent, including me as a professional, can keep up with all the stuff that comes up online. The only way you’ll know if your kid is getting involved is if they talk to you about it. That’s why parents need to put their energy into being close.”
Resources for parents and teens include, surprisingly, YouTube. Videos in which teens talk about the impact of cyber-bullying, sexting, catphishing and other harmful internet practices cause Donohue to say that mobile phones are “the best educational devices ever created by mankind.” The internet’s “great positives and evil horribles,” when viewed by teens together with their parents, strengthen family unity.
About future generations’ ability to safely navigate the internet, Donohue is optimistic. “We’re already doing better than five years ago and when our kids are parents, they’re going to do an amazing job. They grew up with the internet and will be able to talk to their kids.”