Tech Talk Tuesdays

Needing Attention and Crying For Help on Social Media

Several weeks ago, my daughter, now a senior in high school, was on her phone on the hammock she had set up outside. I got in the hammock beside her — very carefully I must add because hammocks make me motion sick. As we laid there, I was doing my usual work of trying my best not to ask her questions about her phone — things like, "Hey hun, who ya talking with?" Eventually, I could not fully hold back and said gently, "Seems like you are in a deep conversation with someone."

She said yes in a very agreeable tone (yeah, I had not frustrated her).

She went on to say: "Yeah, my friend is feeling depressed, and we are talking."

Me: "Oh, that's great she told you."

Tessa: "Yeah, it's been going on for a long time."

Me: "How did you find out?"

Tessa: "She posted on her Snapchat story."

Me: "Oh, got it. I'm just curious, did a lot of people see it?"

Tessa: "No it was just her story available to her close friends."

Me: "How many people is that?"

Tessa: "Like, 15."

Me: "What did she write on the post?"

Tessa: "Just that she was feeling depressed and, like, not getting out of bed."

Then Tessa shared a long paragraph she wrote to her friend, all about how it's so hard to motivate yourself to do things when you're feeling bad but how starting small can make such a difference. She went on to share her "victory technique," originally taught to Tessa by a different friend. In this strategy, you label every accomplishment as a "victory," even things as small as going to the bathroom. As these victories are acknowledged, momentum builds to do even more throughout the day.

In addition to all the advice Tessa had written, I was moved by all the supportive things she said to her friend as well.

Tessa then told me she had to get out of the hammock — she was going on a walk with this friend (this was pre-social distancing). "Wait!" I exclaimed, "Let me get out first so I can do it slowly and get less seasick."

My conversation with Tessa reminded me that while not an everyday event, kids often get messages or see posts of friends who are going through hard times. Some teens say that it is helpful for them to be able to reach out to many people at once via social media, but this, of course, raises concerns. Will only the people it was intended for see it? How do peers on the receiving end know how to respond? And what happens when a person makes a post that worries their peers— but when asked, the person says nothing is wrong?

Here is an example of when teens are worried about a friend who is showing signs of having a problem but not talking about it openly.

Some months ago, while at a dance competition where our daughters were competing, a mom I knew told me how her teen daughter was worried about a friend. Her daughter (I will call her Jill) knew her friend (I will call her Mandy) made comments that she didn't like her body. Now her posts were seeming pretty dark; she seemed sad and mad in her posts.

Two other friends of Jill were also worried about Mandy, but they did not know what to do. The friends felt stuck because when they tried to talk with Mandy about their concerns, both in person and through written communication, like texts, Mandy would skirt the issue. Jill and her friends wondered, were they overreacting? Was there something really bad brewing? They hated not knowing.

The good news was that the three friends worked together to sort out a plan quickly. They decided to talk with a mom who they felt could skillfully speak with Mandy's mother.

I asked my friend where things stood now. She said Jill was happy that they had the other mom as an ally and that she would be able to talk with Mandy's mom. She also said she hoped the other mom would not be too alarmist.

There are other times when there are serious crisis signals, and emergency intervention needs to happen.

I will never forget when Tessa was in seventh grade, and she had an iPod at the time. One night she came into my room and showed me a close-up photo of a girl's mouth open with many pills on her tongue. Tessa told me this was someone she was friendly with at school, and this girl had just posted this for a small group of people to see.

I was so glad, of course, that Tessa knew to come to me. She tried calling that girl, but she didn't answer. Tessa and I immediately put our heads together, contacted the school to reach her parents. The situation ultimately was well managed, and the girl got the help she needed.

Sharing these stories with youth in your life can be an excellent way to discuss these important issues, particularly now during COVID-19 when mental health challenges are so prevalent.

Here are some points to consider sharing with your kids and teens:

  1. Let them know that you understand that sometimes people will put on their social media — more likely on their private accounts — things that give their friends concern.
  2. Let them know that when things like this happen, you are not looking for an excuse to take them off social media, but rather you want them to feel safe and come talk with you. It is so important to say this since tweens and teens worry that if parents know that issues occur, parents will rush to end or restrict social media. (That can be appropriate at times but that is not what I am discussing today.)
  3. Let them know that you REALLY understand that how their social world perceives them is REALLY important to them and that you don't want to embarrass them — saying this when no issues are happening can help build their trust, so they come to you when they need to.
  4. Let them know that if they come to you, your goal is to work with them, and not to take over. You are there to help them drive, rather than take over the steering wheel. Of course, there can be times when we as parents do have to fully drive but these times are not as common.
  5. Let them know you want them to have someone to go to. Even though we want them to come to us, some teens might decide not to at specific times for certain reasons. Is there a person in your family, like an older cousin, or an uncle they feel close to, that they also know they can go to?
  6. Let them know they should remind their friends that they really want to help and it is no burden. When a person confides in someone, that someone is usually honored that they did so — they get to feel trusted, appreciated, and much more. So often, when a person is under the weight of hard emotions, they incorrectly believe that if they go to someone for support, they will be burdening that person.
  7. Often teens will know at least one person who "overshares" and makes the whole friend group uncomfortable. Talk about ways your teen can gently bring this up with the “oversharer”.

The key is that we let youth in our life know that our main goal is everyone getting the help they need in hard situations. I have written about all sorts of ways we can assist people getting the help they need when they are going through emotionally hard times, and here is the link to that TTT, A Dozen Ideas For Finding Support.

Ideas to get the conversation started:

  1. What things do you say to friends to check in with the hopes of getting a more honest answer?
  2. Have you ever had a friend start posting things that made you concerned, like posting memes that refer to drug use, or to being misunderstood, or to references of anorexia, or other stuff?
  3. Are you talking with anyone now who is going through a hard time?