Helping Teens with Social Media Anxiety

It is my understanding that many teenagers today feel overwhelmed in response to the idealized images and harsh criticism they encounter on social media. So many are struggling with depression and anxiety in relation to this.

One statistic I saw seems to indicate that boys are more negatively affected by social media engagement in their later teen years. Young girls apparently get through that earlier somehow. But for boys in their late teens and early twenties, it’s actually getting worse.

So that’s a really difficult challenge here. It’s a new kind of suffering, so to speak, that comes from innovation. 

From my experience, everything depends on finding balance. So, I think it’s important for parents and kids to find some kind of balanced approach together. We know that, at this point, it’s not possible for teenagers not to use any social media at all. We’ve reached the point where we can’t fully stop kids from using those apps.

At the same time, if you cannot reach a healthy way of using social media, then it can have all those terrible effects we’re seeing. So, a balanced approach is necessary.

How much time do you spend on social media?

First, there needs to be a balance of time. How much time do you spend on social media? And second, there needs to be some balance in relation to facts. 

As parents, if we have some kind of friendship with our kids, I think it’s important for us to communicate with them. Not in the sense that “we’re the parents, we know all, and you’re just kids who don’t know, and so you have to listen to us.” Not like that, but as a friend. Therefore I suggest that, together, parents and kids can find some kind of common ground so they can agree on a balance of time spent on and off of social media.

What is the difference between fact and projection?

It’s also fully possible to have a nice, substantive discussion about the difference between fact and projection. We can look at how much we project onto other people and situations, and how much other people project as well. We all have a lot of projections about each other, don’t we? Before social media, this was also the case. But after social media entered the picture, it got even more tricky. Because online it’s more impersonal so it’s easier to project, easier to add comments, and easier to write negative things about the other person.

Sometimes we’re not even thinking, we’re just writing. Right? Because we’re not facing that person. We’re just shooting arrows on the Internet. But if we are talking face-to-face, it’s not so easy to say all those negative things we say online. When you have a dialogue with someone in person, there’s some kind of factual basis there. It’s not just opinions and judgments flying around looking for a target. 

For parents as well as for kids, we need some kind of education that helps with finding a balance of facts versus projections. We need to learn how to distinguish between the two: what are the projections here, and what are the facts?

How do you respond to praise and criticism?

Along with that, there’s also a need to find balance in terms of our sense of self-value or self-worth. We need to be able to see clearly: what are our strengths, and what are our weaknesses? What are our positive qualities, and what are the negative parts of our habitual being? We’re all habitual beings. So we may have quite a lot of positive stuff to contribute. And then, of course, we also carry some baggage of negativity.

Once we can see that way, then when someone praises you, it’s not something to get too excited about, because there are also people saying negative things. In the same way, you don’t have to be so depressed and upset about some negative comments, because there are also plenty of people who are praising you, who are seeing your beauty and your resilience. 

 If we can understand our personal habits, both the positive and the negative, then when you see a comment on social media, it will be much easier to deal with. Then right away you know, “Oh, this is not true.” And others may say, “Sure, maybe it’s true, but I’m working on it.” 

So these are some ways of finding balance in our use of social media communications. We can look at how much time we’re spending online. But more importantly, we can look to see how much we project. We all project labels and concepts onto others, don’t we? And it is very important, it is key in fact, to find a balance between our projections and the facts.

And to support finding that balance, I encourage people to see each other in person, more than just seeing each other on social media. 

Finding the Balance with Social Media: An Exercise

Balance begins with understanding where we are and what we’re doing. Take a few moments to let your body relax and your mind settle. Then ask yourself:

1. How often do I engage with social media? Once, twice, or 100 times a day? Once I open an app, how long do I spend scrolling? What is one way that I could balance the time I spend on social media with connecting with others in person? Example: “I will turn off notifications on my phone and only look at them twice a day instead of leaving them on all the time and answering every ping.” Or “Instead of long texts, I will suggest taking conversations with friends offline by setting time for a walk or a face-to-face call without distractions.”

2. When I see a story or opinion on social media, what is my first response, usually? What are some of my common projections and assumptions? What is one way that I could check my projections and balance them with facts?

3. When someone likes or praises me on social media, what is my usual response? When someone criticizes or ignores me, how do I respond? What is one thing I could remember that could help balance my response to encountering praise or criticism?

This article is based on teachings given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche during the online event, “A Conversation with Author Dzogchen Ponlop” in July 2021, hosted by Emotional Rescue Courses.