Clinical distress is scary, embarrassing, humiliating, and isolating. Clients often tell me that I’m the ONLY person they are talking to about their real feelings. Young and old alike say that making others happy is often more important than seeking support for themselves, that they’d rather lay low to avoid drama. Unfortunately, suffering in silence can lead to symptoms of higher severity and even danger like self harm and suicidality; whereas early intervention may lead to relief. For all of us, social media isn’t just a portal to cyberbullies, pornographers, and child predators; it is also a portal to factual health information and community support. Just knowing you’re not alone goes a long way for those in distress. Might your child be reaching out online for help?
Social Media and Mental Health
Since 74% of Americans visit social media sites daily, it’s not hard to see why 97% of organizations that promote public support have resorted to using online social media platforms (Bail, 2016). And people visit! According to studies on social medias, “mental health focus attracted the highest number of fans” (Kite, 2016). Social media can provide education, awareness, and reduce stigmas for public health issues and mental health. They do this by sharing informational articles, memes (a picture with a message typed on it), videos, and people’s personal stories with the intent of reshaping the way we view health and well being.
To see if campaigns have an impact on viewers, Wright and colleagues (2006) conducted a study to test the effectiveness of a youth mental health awareness campaign using different sources of social medias viewed by individuals 12 to 25 years old. As expected, the results indicated that the campaign was effective, resulting in increased awareness of self-identified depression and suicide risk and help for depression sought in the previous year, and a reduction in perceived barriers to help seeking.
Social media is helping children and teens become more educated and insightful about their mental well being and motivate them to seek help. For example, a video on social media of a woman sharing her story about how she defeated depression could serve as a role model for young viewers (Wright, 2006).
Social Media and Autism
Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is diagnosed in 1 in 68 children in the United States and is rapidly growing in prevalence. More than $241 billion is spent annually on services (Bail, 2016). However, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about ASD. Facebook group pages like Autism Speaks, Autism Awareness, and AutismTalk are filled with emotion evoking videos, memes, tips for parents, and inspirational stories from families with autistic children. For example, Autism Speak’s Facebook page shared an article about a seventeen year-old autistic boy who was his high school’s validictorian with a 4.0 GPA. It reminds everyone that we mustn’t limit or define someone by their disability. Social media brings people together, provides support for families who deal with ASD, and lets them know that they aren’t alone.
Social Media and Public Health
Another issue social media tackles is public health. “Facebook, the most widely used social media platform, has been adopted by public health organizations for health promotion and behavior change campaigns and activities” (Kite, 2015). Popular public health issues searched include the risks of alcohol use and smoking and issues of exercise, nutrition, and sexual health. Because emotionally driven experiences are more likely to attract attention and result in real behavior change, public health campaigns are often designed to evoke emotional response. For example, a video by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shows a teen who tears off a piece of her skin to pay for her pack of cigarettes. Shocking images like these make impact, graphically emphasizing the cost of substance abuse.
Discussions to have with your children
While there is an endless amount of information available just by the touch of a screen, we need to remind our children that they can’t believe everything they read on the Internet. Because their ability to recognize nuance, assess sources, and analyze the credibility of information is limited, they can be too concrete and even gullible in their interpretation of information.
Here are some things you can cover with your kids to help them benefit from Internet information rather than be duped by it:
- Urge teens to get a second opinion about what they read online, either by researching further or seeking out an adult or expert on the topic. Best option, talk about it around the dinner table.
- Assess the credibility of the source.
- Remind them that .gov websites are typically more credible that .com websites, because they are government sponsored.
- Remind them that Wikipedia is not a credible source, because it is written by anonymous online volunteers.
- Use the website Snopes to search out the veracity of an online claim.
Thanks CSUCI Intern, Brooke Vandenbosch for her work on this article.
With all of the hubbub about fake news these days, even adults need a brush-up about how to discriminate between fake and real information. Check out my article, Is it a Scientific Finding or a Sensational Headline? The Demise of American Democracy. #FakeNews #YellowJournalism for a more in-depth discussion about assessing informational credibility.
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
Bail, C. (2016). Emotional feedback and the viral spread of social media messages about autism spectrum disorders. American Journal of Public Health, 106(7), 1173.
Kite, J. , Foley, B. , Grunseit, A. , & Freeman, B. (2016). Please like me: Facebook and public health communication. PloS One, 11(9), e0162765
Wright, A. , McGorry, P. , Harris, M. , Jorm, A. , & Pennell, K. (2006). Development and evaluation of a youth mental health community awareness campaign – the compass strategy. BMC Public Health, 6, 215.