Irish Times: 1st September 2015
Young people need to be supported to learn how to validate themselves so they do not depend on feedback
The numbers of young people presenting to hospital emergency departments because they have self-harmed or are at risk of self-harming has increased again this year. This creates huge concern for parents, and it creates a need to figure out ways to better mind their children’s mental health.
Young people are spending a lot of time on social media; it is how they connect with the world and with each other. But as they begin a new school year, managing their online presence is just one more element with which young people have to deal.
As well as being fun, it can be a source of much anxiety. This is because the social media world has become one of the main mechanisms through which young people work out their identity, ie who they are and what they are worth. They depend on feedback from peers online to answer questions such as “Am I popular?”, “Am I liked?” and, therefore, “Am I of worth?”. But social media feedback is too narrow a filter for anyone to work out their worth. Even the most confident adults would feel their self-esteem falter if they were depending so much on positive feedback for validation.
Young people need to be supported to learn how to validate themselves more, so that they are not as dependent on feedback. To do this, we must focus on confidence.
Making the unconscious conscious
Young people begin to face the psychological task known as identity formation around the same time that they begin to use social media. They grapple with questions such as “What is my identity?” and “Am I a person of worth?” but the questions are in the unconscious part of their minds. How these questions are answered throughout adolescence is affected by what happens them online. It is better for young people to know about this psychological task.
Social media posts as ‘performance’ Social media sites can be used as a place to perform. People post the best of what they wish others to see, and the social media site becomes a stage. Young people can be helped by thinking of social media in this way. What others post is often performance, whether that is selfies of stars or selfies of their classmates.
On social media, people make public what they want others to see and wait for the reaction of the “audience”. If the audience reacts well, it makes the performer feel good but it does not make the person who performed any better or worse than anyone else. How an audience reacts is outside the performer’s control. But they can control how they interpret the reaction. Young people can take more ownership of how they interpret people’s reactions to them on social media. The first step in doing this is to tune into their confidence source.
Taking the time to tune into the source of confidence involves making space in the mind for reflection. It is hard for young people to reflect while they are on social media as so much information is coming their way. Parents can encourage this reflection by asking questions not just about how the young person’s day was, or how school went, but by including questions about social media.
Questions such as these can help: “How did you get on with your friends online?” “Did anything happen on social media today that made you feel good or bad about yourself?” “What reaction did your posts get?” “How did you feel about that?”
Everyone gets confidence in different ways, but because young people are trying to work out their identity, they are particularly tuned into feedback from others, especially peers online. This results in a lot of their confidence being sourced externally.
External versus internal confidence sources
There are two main confidence sources. One is external and involves feedback from others. To have only an external source of confidence is not good, as external sources are outside a person’s control. An internal source of confidence is something each young person can develop and nurture for themselves. They can gain control of it, using their mind to soothe, support and encourage themselves, regardless of the feedback.
How to develop an internal confidence source
Once a young person knows the difference between an internal and external confidence source, they can tune in more accurately to where they are getting confidence. They can pay attention to their internal thoughts about themselves, noticing whether these thoughts are, in the main, supportive or critical of the self. If their internal thoughts tend to be self-critical, they can choose to challenge these thoughts. The more effort they make, the easier it will get.
Sometimes young people are very self-critical without even being aware that they are. Being too focused on the number of “likes” they get or don’t get on social media can perpetuate this negativity. And as the new school year begins, young people who nurture self-confidence will nurture their mental health.
Anne McCormack is a family therapist accredited to FTAI and ICP.