Help my Teenager: Social Media, Algorithms, and Mental Health

The world of a Gen Z-er is so different from the one many parents, teachers and coaches grew up in that it can often feel like they're walking through unfamiliar territory. The rapid changes over just 15 - 20 years have been unprecedented even by today's standards when you consider how much faster information moves around now than then!

It often feels super overwhelming.

Stressful to try to keep ahead of the curve.

Exhausting.

Being a Millennial [as I am]: I was lucky enough to be born before the internet... and have grown up with the progressions, advancements, and ever changing dialogue surrounding how the internet can serve us... and how it really doesn't.

I used Encyclopedias for research assignments, and then found myself turning to Wikipedia.

I grew up with a corded phone, then found myself several years later having the ability to chat with multiple people at the same time via MSN messenger, MySpace, and Bebo.

I was taught to question everything on the internet... to now being told to Google everything. The school of life has turned into the school of the internet.

Cut to 2022: and the world looks completely different to even when I was raised, and it can be intimidating. We now live in a world where new and potentially concerning social media apps are being created and used everyday... SnapChat, Instagram, Facebook, Reels, TikTok, WhatsApp, WeChat, QQ, Telegram, Pinterest, Reddit, Twitter, LinkedIn, Public, Twitch, Discord... the list is endless. We must create an environment where our young people can thrive and reach their full potential. We know that in order for this generation of kids to grow up happy, healthy adults who are productive members society it’s crucial they experience a safe digital space with positive influences around them all day long—every single minute.

Introducing... the algorithm

An algorithm is a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer. Algorithms act as an exact list of instructions that conduct specified actions step by step in either hardware- or software-based routines. Algorithms are widely used throughout all areas of IT.

In other words: algorithms are what make most technology work effectively, but when it comes to social media specifically [especially with your kids] companies and influencers rely on artificial intelligence so that they can continue feeding users similar content.

In other words: if your teenager consistently seeks out TikTok dance challenges, chances are: videos that will show up on their TikTok feed will be... TikTok dance challenges. Similarly: if a user seeks out videos that talk about depression or anxiety... chances are: they're going to be fed more and more content that also discusses depression and anxiety.

And not necessarily from a healthy, resilient, or empowering perspective.

Introducing: Confirmation Bias

We all know that echo chambers exist. They're named for the phenomenon of communication within a closed system where beliefs are reinforced by repetition and surrounded with like-minded individuals, insulated from outside viewpoints or contrary evidence. Many times we find ourselves in social situations which foster similar thought habits - those who share our values and preferences on every level imaginable. It becomes easy to become resistant if someone doesn't agree 100% precisely as us when they suggest an opposing opinion!

Most of us are aware of the phenomena of an echo chamber. An echo chamber "refers to situations in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system and insulated from rebuttal". Often we surround ourselves in social situations with people who share similar viewpoints, similar belief systems, and even similar incomes or educational values. We all want community, but it's important to be mindful of the dangers that come with feeling like you belong. These echo chambers can also lead us down an unproductive path, where our sense for community and belonging becomes more about social acceptance rather than actual connection between human beings.

Even worse: when the viewpoints of the community that your teenager has suddenly found themselves in is a negative space: the echo chamber can be damaging.

Think back to when you were in high school. Often the jocks would hang out together. The "popular crowd" were an exclusive or elitist group of individuals. Then there's the "good-ats", "fine arts", "brains", "normals", "druggie/stoners", "emo/goths", "anime/manga", "loners" and various "racial/ ethnic groups". Seldom these groups would intermingle... and there are countless studies on how dangerous this can be for our young people:

to name but a few of these studies.

Of course, real life cliques in high school can helpful when it comes to

  • giving teenagers/children a sense of belonging

  • teaching kids and teens tools on resiliency

  • providing your children with an opportunity to learn how interact with different social groups

  • promoting critical thought

But this is difficult to cross relate over to the internet and social media. And let's face it: we live in a world where social media use is becoming more and more prevalent.

In real life situations, you can at least see other perspectives, beliefs, and ways of life all around you everyday - coexisting and sharing the same space as you. When it comes to social media use, however, it feels near impossible to expose someone to alternative viewpoints and perspectives.

The algorithms just aren't set up that way.

Instead: we find ourselves on a merry-go-round of confirmation bias. Which can be tricky in a world that revolves around social media use, AI, and online platforms.

Especially as a typical child's screen time is between six and nine hours a day, depending on their age. That's a huge amount of time to spend in an echo chamber that confirms negative, disempowering or unhealthy thought. And while it may seem futile to try to limit kids screen time [especially given how much time at school is spent on a computer in 2022], what if I told you that:


there's a way to trick the system.

After 2020: we've seen a significant shift towards promoting therapy, and mental health support. To have a trained professional to speak to your children and teenagers is key to not just helping them to feel heard and understood, but to also assist them in figuring out ways to navigate their stress, trauma and overwhelm. The trouble is, however: because our Gen Zers are built different [in part because of the advent of technology, online social forums, and the constant distractions surrounding us online]: traditional therapies might not work as well as they once did. Attention spans are less. Remembering the a-ha moments is becoming less and less frequent. And putting lessons into practice can be... daunting and difficult.

And either way: if we live in a world where we're constantly being fed one message online, yet have a trained professional once a week tell us something different... realistically how easy would it be for your child or teenager to completely forget everything their therapist/coach/mentor had uncovered for them, and helped them work through?

We need to figure out a way to change the algorithm.

Algorithms are not just created by what we consume, but also by what we create. Given my previous example of the TikTok dance challenge: if teens spend hours a day creating and posting videos of them dancing to Doja Cat's newest song, the likelihood is they'll see more videos of dance challenges to Doja Cat. Similarly: if your teen spent even just two hours a day creating content about their mental and emotional health: you guessed it. They'll likely start finding other videos and creators appear on their timeline about mental health issues.

Of course, teenagers aren't likely to create videos about their therapy sessions, but you know what else trends on social media? Music.

What if your young adult had the ability to write songs directly about their a-ha moment with their therapist, coach, or mentor?

What if your child started writing songs about overcoming their anxiety, and posting that content online?

What if your teen wrote their own mental health anthem, and shared that with the world on Instagram Reels?

They wouldn't even have to sing it... even posting a lyric sheet, or treating it as a spoken word poem: not only would this give your teenager the opportunity to find a healthier online clique, a la high school, but - because they're now posting content about resilience, healing, self love, and learning: they're re-teaching the algorithms to feed them positive content.

Suddenly their time spent on social media is moving towards health and wellness, as opposed to drowning in hours of anxiety-fueled content online.

And it doesn't take long.

A typical therapy session takes around an hour... I have found that when I'm coaching my teenaged clients: more often than not, we can write an entire song in less than one hour based on their thoughts, feelings, aha moments, and learnings that week.

In other words: the clients who come to me to help coach them through their overwhelm and anxiety spend only one hour per week recognizing their silver linings, learnings and inner strength amidst the stress, overwhelm and anxiety... and then turning it into their own theme song of power.

Clients of mine who have also sought more in-depth therapy [specifically for those struggling with severe depression, or suicidal adiation] have also found that writing their a-ha moments from each counselling session into a song has been immensely helpful in them remembering the key takeaways from their sessions.

Even better, if they ever feel overwhelmed or down at any stage in the future: it's much easier to sing a song to oneself than to repeat affirmations, or re-read past journal entries. Melody also just helps the brain to remember... and remember... and eventually believe how strong, resilient, powerful and important your young person is.

It is a science.

There is a lot of research behind how music affects one's mental and emotional health journey. The increase of dopamine and seratonin, in addition to the decrease of cortisol is just one aspect of how music is beneficial for the development of your young person's well-being.

To add the art of songwriting into the mix, however, adds so many other benefits to the mix. Finally: your child's able to communicate their thoughts more effectively [and what feels like safely]. Your teenager is also able to repeat positive self messaging to themselves in a way that feels non-confrontational and enjoyable. And - almost more importantly in today's tech-driven world - these songs [your child's songs] can drastically alter the way that media use their screen time to direct their thinking.

The time is now

If you're interested in learning more about how the art of songwriting might be the tool you've been waiting for when it comes to your child's mental and emotional health, as well as ways to take back control of the algorithms that are eating up your teens screen time: click here to book a call with me.

Let's rewrite the echo chamber into something positive, empowering, and healthy for our teens.

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