“Social media is harming the mental health of teenagers.”
“Why Instagram is the worst social media for mental health.”
“Have smartphones destroyed a generation?”
These are all headlines drawn from reputable news organizations, including Time and The Atlantic. They are from online versions of those organizations, which is important because social media and the internet so dominate our lives today that you have to appear on them even to decry their use.
There is substance to their accusations, however. Research from the Cyberbullying Research Center found more than a quarter of surveyed U.S. high school kids have been the victims of online bullying, and 16% admitted to bullying others.
That seemingly toxic environment, and the warnings from the mass media, have done nothing to curb teenage use of social media–as many as 94% of 13- to 17-year-olds use social media platforms.
If you can’t get young people off social media, even to save themselves, maybe you should try to help them while they’re on it. Maybe online counseling via Skype, or just a safe place to hang out and video chat, is the answer to digital media evils.
Online Counseling for Digital Natives
In the UK they call them Elefriends. In Australia, it’s a more complex eheadspace. Both online services offer young people a place to seek shelter from the social media storm. Both are built around video calls and the common social media structure of mixing open forums with private chat rooms. Both are virtual locations where teens can search directly for a sympathetic ear, a potential solution, or others suffering through the same issue. It can also act as a place where they can do whatever they usually do online, safe in the knowledge that everything is monitored and moderated to keep things civil.
In both cases, teens are encouraged to discuss their problems with that rare mix of intimacy and anonymity social media has created. These sites are resources that can be found without parental or peer involvement, and they follow the same rules of engagement as the other media-rich social networks that researchers keep telling us are second nature to young members of Generation Z. These digital natives are chiefly defined by the strength of their online social worlds and their tendency to want to find their own solutions.
That’s a perfect fit with online counseling.
Virtual Online Counseling via Skype
Online reproductions of traditional one-on-one counseling services have been around longer than you may think. Another Australian service, Kids Help Line, for instance, has been conducting live webchat counseling since the turn of the millennium. There are a number of online services originating from the U.S. as well, including TalkSpace, which offers scheduled therapy sessions. Indeed, several prominent universities, including Texas A&M and Baylor University, have started offering online therapy to their students.
These services demand nothing more from their clients than a webcam or smartphone and a standard video conferencing connection–Skype will do the job for free, so there’s no hassle there. Of course, that’s not to say these online counseling services themselves are necessarily free. Talkspace offers a few different subscription levels, but a mid-level subscription (includes unlimited therapy by messaging, two daily check-ins and one live session a month) costs $59 per week.
As I said earlier, however, these services are reproductions of brick-and-mortar counseling, albeit a more convenient version. Talkspace will let you check in with your therapist outside of a session, but there’s little to no chance you’ll be sending them consistent updates on your trip to the mall or video calling them to share an episode of Stranger Things.
But that’s what teens do online, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to offer them a casual, safe space they can drop into to find 24/7 support.
Creating a Supportive Social Network
The video calling app Rabb.it will let you share a Netflix stream during a live group video chat. Twitch encourages forums of video callers to gather and watch live gaming together. Coachella live streams its three-day lineup of music superstars on YouTube. All this content is available to be incorporated into an online counseling world. Even without formal counseling available, merely having a moderated social media or video chat environment might be enough to let teens enjoy a portion of their online lives without fear of bullying.
But it’s also clearly possible to gather some of these attractions under the tent of a service like Talkspace and offer teens an alternative social media experience. Rather than recreate the therapist’s office online, why not recreate the music festival and have the therapist on hand if anyone needs to debrief for a while? Many video calling apps, including Zoom, offer breakout rooms where people can move away from the main conversation for a while and share a more intimate face-to-face chat.
Maybe, after the last act has dropped the mic and headed to the afterparty, someone from the online audience will be empowered to turn on their Skype connection and wind down their day with a conversation with a therapist they’ve just been virtually dancing alongside.