How to manage teens’ interactions with social media

An interview with Dr. Jeffrey I. Dolgan, Senior Psychologist at Children's Hospital Colorado

What is your impression of Facebook?

It’s part of a climate of social media that most kids are tapped into. It’s unusual for a teen not to be involved with it. Social media is very, very important to them and tremendously impactful.

Can Facebook cause depression?

It’s a little hard to know about cause and effect – it’s the chicken-egg question. Parents can conclude that their child is depressed for any number of reasons. A lot of things are linked to depression. Let’s not isolate Facebook. Bullying, substance, anxiety and learning disabilities, for example, can all link to depression. I don’t think that, in and of itself, Facebook is harmful. It just depends on how it’s used. All these things can be used for good or can be used for bad.

How can social media interactions cause depression?

I call it a mega-interaction. A snarky comment in passing by the locker in the traditional middle or high school can be erased. You can just say, “She’s having a bad day.” But if something gets out on Facebook – a picture or a criticism – it goes viral and that’s devastating. The kids are impacted by many, many more people than they ever anticipated. It’s more toxic because they are working in the milieu of not just their school but ten schools. It can expand to a whole district.

What are some dangers of social media?

There is an expectation of big disclosure. You have to put something out there so you appear interesting compared to everybody else. A lot of kids put some things out there that are not true. Another problem is they’re “friending” many people and I don’t think that’s what it means to be friends. That’s a different definition. “I have 187 friends,” a kid says – I don’t think they do.

How can we teach children to handle the negative impacts of social media in a healthy way?

A lot of it has to do with resilience. Resilience is a patchwork of influences from important people. Think about your own resilience: who helped you become who you are? It’s the people who told you, “You can do this, even though it will be tough.” It could be a teacher, a coach, a parent, auntie-somebody.

I think one way to teach resilience is to find a kid’s passion. That’s the way you start to feel better. Most of the depressed and anxious kids I see haven’t discovered a passion just yet. I think every kid has a passion. It just takes a little drilling down to find it.

Can Facebook be a source for good?

Yes. It ties kids to new kids beyond their experiential realm. I think it’s wonderful because it can connect kids to others who have the same passion.

How can parents encourage their kids to use social media in a positive way?

First, let’s recognize what’s snarky and mean-spirited. After awhile, many kids become immune. They are desensitized to the fact that they’re impacted by mean messages. Parents should also ask questions about how their children want to use it. They should ask questions like, “What do you really want to get out of this?” Encourage them to join groups and link-up.

Would there be fewer problems if parents and kids understood the same medium in the same way?

Most parents I see discourage social media because they don’t understand it, because they didn’t grow up with it. I rarely hear, “Go on Facebook!” This is why I encourage parents to ask their children to train them, to say, “Show me how this works.” Get curious. The more curious you are as a parent, the more open you are to good communication from your kids. Hold off on being judgmental. The more you can do that, the more you can invite kids in.

What’s the right approach to know about what children are doing?

That’s very touchy. Kids are going on Facebook kind of quietly. I think it’s worthwhile to have family discussions that ask questions like, “How are you using it? What’s good about it? What’s not good about it?” You just have to keep at them without pestering them. I call it positive anticipation. Parents can continue to say, “I look forward to the time when we can talk about this.” By doing this, they’re dropping seeds, but not pushing it. But don’t look over their shoulders, don’t hover. If you present it as forbidden fruit, they’ll figure out another way to get to it.

What are some depressive behaviors that parents should look for in their kids?

It’s a shift– it could be gradual or it could be sudden. Their child may become more secretive and detached, may have problems with sleep or appetite. Parents should especially watch for issues about school avoidance. Play your hunches. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not. You don’t have to prove it – you just have to acknowledge that something is different. You don’t have to know what’s going on, you just have to know that something’s going on.

What’s the first thing parents should do if they see those signs?

Encourage them to talk to someone they trust. They probably won’t talk to you because you’re the parent. Always know your kid has a relationship with someone else. Kids need to understand who to go to and who can do something.

When should a parent seek professional help?

When their kids aren’t going to school.

Note: This material stemmed from an article about Facebook and depression in the Denver Post, published on March 28, 2011.