Social Media Monitoring Tips for Successful Psychotherapy with Teens By Donna C. Moss, MA, LCSW-R on 3/7/23 - 5:20 AM

Therapeutic Encounters with Two Teens

Courtney was the kind of 10th grade-client that I completely enjoyed. She was cute, clever, and motivated. So, when she began to have an issue that ballooned into a crisis, I was a bit surprised. Her parent found out that she had shared a nude selfie with a boy she knew, who then shared it with the whole school. While Courtney’s mother was a nurse who well understood the ups and downs of being a single parent and the importance of being present for her daughter, she didn’t see this looming crisis coming and was unable to comfort her daughter.

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My clinical work with Courtney centered around understanding her own boundaries — that being a people-pleaser is not always what’s required — and giving voice to her past losses (including the tragic death of her Father), all of which were held inside too long. Throughout our work, and hopefully beyond, DBT for frustration tolerance and CBT to calm the inner critic were supportive anchors. I also made myself available for extra sessions until she stabilized. In addition, I helped her do some damage control at her school by speaking directly with the guidance counselor.

Nevertheless, Courtney landed in the hospital from sheer humiliation. And because she was so emotionally fragile, she needed time to be safe, without her devices, to regroup, process, and consolidate her experiences. While Courtney was scarred by her mistake, blamed and mortified for what another kid didn’t yet understand about privacy, she was, thankfully, able to benefit from the immediate help.

Another college-age client, who I will call Sasha, had insomnia and relied on her smartphone to fall asleep — much like scores of others her age do. Parents, Sasha’s included, often say things like, “You can take away all her devices but it won’t help.” Sasha, as it turned out, was reliving a traumatic memory that replayed in her head, and she often woke up screaming. Although I am not a sleep expert, I realized that she was in trouble because she hadn’t attended school in over a week.

My initial work with Sasha focused on the immediate presenting problem of sleep. For me, this is always an important discussion with teens. Then we moved slowly to her past trauma using breath and yoga to help her self-regulate. The incident she was reliving every night was painful, but it didn’t have to follow her into adulthood.

Adolescent Struggles with Self-Regulation

As I reflect on these two cases, which share certain digital/social media-related elements, I also appreciate their differences. Courtney was simply burnt out from the social media backlash and ongoing shame, humiliation, and guilt she felt knowing that everyone with a smart device could see her nude picture. She needed a reset.

Sasha, having had an entirely different kind of traumatic experience, was not quite as resilient as Courtney. Her body, as Bessel van der Kolk reminds us, kept the score and intruded on her sleep despite her best efforts to use a digital remedy. In the two instances, it was important for me to differentiate between depression, trauma, and anxiety, the symptoms of which often converge. Both, however, had difficulty coping with their respective crises because of their reliance, or perhaps over-reliance, on social media and digital devices.

In the cases of Courtney and Sasha, as I do with most teens with whom I work, I included the family. I offered suggestions around self-regulation for the teen, and to the parents for helping their child regulate the use of social media and digital devices. Interestingly, and perhaps not unexpectedly, because of their overreliance on their digital devices for connection during COVID, I had an uptick in patients who were convinced they were dissociating. Perhaps they were. One client said people were watching her from within the walls of her room.

Sasha accepted a few of my suggestions for learning how to re-regulate herself, but she never quite connected the dots that “the body keeps the score.” Instead, she insisted on staying online because without her friends, there was “no score at all.”

Helping Teen Clients Find Balance

While working with families like those of Sasha and Courtney, I simultaneously model calmness, generate a decision tree of steps for addressing the crisis, and calculate the practical and emotional cost of decisions they have or are thinking of making. At the same time, I try to comfort the teen that “this too shall pass,” and to provide the needed perspective they can’t yet take. The black-and-white thinking, a hallmark of adolescence, keeps them feeling there’s no way out when there usually is.

The teen’s default and refrain often remains: what will people think of me? But with time and support, their inner voice may shift to one of more self-compassion. I often say, “What would you tell a friend?” The hyper-fixation on self-image that is also the cornerstone of adolescent thinking, amplified by the social isolation of COVID and the endless resulting on-screen hours, was the perfect storm and seedbed for some of the angst and depression we have seen among adolescents. We cannot necessarily prevent social media, but we can still protect them from its potentially harmful effects.

I worked for early internet start-ups in the health and wellness space for some time, so I cannot readily cast away the benefits of the Internet or social media. Like many teen girls with whom I’ve worked, their virtual world is their true and only world. What others see of them is all that matters.

So, in Courtney’s case, the destruction of her carefully curated online image was shattering and felt like the death of part of herself. Do we now blame social media for what happened to Courtney or for Sasha’s experience? Unfortunately, we can barely ban guns, let alone phones. Schools are trying to take phones during instruction. That’s a good idea. I don’t think my daughter ever read a book in high school. There was no attention span left by the time she reached 10th grade. Joining with the teen on her journey lets her know that at least one grown-up in the world is on her team — her teen brain doesn’t have to define her.

It is so convenient for friends, family, therapists, teachers, and parents to say “social media be damned,” especially after an episode like Courtney’s. I agree with what they’re saying; after all, it’s legitimate to protect your children (and clients) from porn, abuse, catfishing, danger, and predators. My biggest parenting regret was not removing the phones from my own children’s possession by 10:00 PM like many parents do. Sleep is critical during adolescence, but too many kids simply cannot resist the allure of talking to their friends all night.

If my patient is on social media all day and night, what would be more appropriate: to scold her and instruct the parents to remove all screens, or perhaps teach her that rest is critical to development, as is exercise, diet, spirituality, creativity, and every possible other form of self-care? I often beg clients to get a hobby.

Social Media and the Benefits of Connection

One of my current clients is doing an online degree program in a special kind of painting that she posts weekly on Instagram. Because she has a significant trauma history, her present situation doesn’t allow her to visit museums or lectures or art studio classes. But she can paint and post and maybe one day sell those paintings online.

What gives her hope is the freedom to expose her work to the world without having to leave her room or open herself to bullying, intimidation, or abuse. And then there are clients who are either ill or live in a rural setting who can talk to their BFFs (and me) without having to drive. These are the many ways a young, isolated person may reframe the online world as an adaptation to her struggles, rather than the enemy.

I am not suggesting that my clients continue mind-numbing and wasteful activities like stalking their ex, trolling through others’ emails, engaging in illegal/aggressive or shameful bullying, or worse. What I say to my colleagues who work with young people is this; save your judgment and let’s figure out what the pitfalls and potential are in each situation, then help our clients to filter in what is meaningful, useful, and practical for them within their virtual (and “real”) communities and filter out what doesn’t serve them. I love working with young people because once they “get it,” they’re usually good to go.    

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections, Child & Adolescent Therapy