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Why a Resilient Teen is Safer Online

Resilient Teen

Two children are cyberbullied. One shrugs it off, while the other sinks into depression and despair. A group of kids enjoy a sleepover together and post pictures of themselves on Instagram. Uninvited classmates see the photos. Some don’t think twice, while others feel miserable about not being invited.

Digital kids face all sorts of challenges today—from cyberbullying, counting social media “likes,” to trying to look “perfect” online. Why is it that some kids face these challenges with no problem at all, while others struggle and even pay an emotional toll on what they see online?

A Mental Health Crisis

In December 2021, the U.S. surgeon general warned of a “devastating” mental health crisis among adolescents. According to The New York Times, “numerous hospital and doctor groups have called it a national emergency, citing rising levels of mental illness, a severe shortage of therapists and treatment options, and insufficient research to explain the trend.”

While many have tried to draw a link between social media use and teen depression, research connecting the two is mixed. In some cases, too much social media use can contribute to decreased wellbeing in teens, but conversely many teens turn to social media to find solace or connection with others who are struggling too. What is clear is that today’s kids face many pressures that previous generations did not—a worldwide pandemic, school shootings, and climate change, for starters. And all of these pressures are played for them to see on the Internet, 24/7. That’s a lot for a young brain to handle.

A Solution?

Experts point to one skill that can help inoculate kids against the stresses and pressures of life, online and off—resilience.

Resilience is a skill that helps children overcome obstacles more easily. It also reduces the chances of them suffering from anxiety or other stress-related disorders.

Obviously, the older and more mature a child gets, the more apt they are to develop the resiliency they will need to withstand the pressures of online life. This is just one of the many good reasons for kids to wait at least until early adolescence to start using the social media where many online pressures exist.

The other thing that builds resiliency is practice. Many kids go online today with no idea about what they will encounter there and, even more importantly, what to do when they encounter it. So that’s what we practice in Cyber Civics. As we teach kids about “digital literacy”—the ability to critically, effectively and responsibly access, use, understand and engage with media of all kinds—we use the opportunity to pose all kinds of scenarios of things that are likely to happen online. This gives them a chance to discuss solutions with their peers. Here’s an example.

In a lesson about “posting” and “tagging” this scenario is included:

Chanel takes an embarrassing picture of her friends at a sleepover and posts it on a social media site where pictures disappear after being viewed. Unfortunately, before it disappears someone takes a screenshot of the embarrassing pic, shares it on another social media site and tags everyone in the photo. Lots of people see it and the girls are embarrassed. They decide to get back at Chanel by taking and posting an embarrassing picture of her and tagging her in it. This causes hurt feelings all around.

In small groups, students discuss the following questions related to this story:

  1. Do you think the girls in the photo responded appropriately?

  2. How else might the girls in the embarrassing phto have responded? Explain.

  3. How else might the girls in the embarrassing photo have responded. Explain.

This example may seem extraordinarily simple, yet how often do young people get a chance to talk to their peers about digital dramas that might quickly escalate online? Not very often.

In the podcast, “Inside the Adolescent Mental Health Crisis” from The Daily, journalist Matt Richtel, who has conducted extensive research on the topic of teen mental health, poses a solution to this crisis. He suggests that in addition to honoring and respecting what kids are going through today, we should also make opportunities to implement a sort of cognitive behavioral therapy for kids. In short, this would help youth build resiliency by allowing them to:

  • Gain a better understanding of the behavior and motivation of others.

  • Use problem-solving skills to cope with difficult situations.

  • Learn to develop a greater sense of confidence in their abilities.

When youth practice dealing with setbacks and problems, it builds the resiliency they will need to deal with similar problems. This will make them more capable and safer online.

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