Before most young girls had access to smartphones and social media, they may have been acutely aware of mean girls and being excluded from social events. As more young girls post about their social lives online, they are more likely to learn about what other people think about them and what they are missing out on directly on social media rather than through the gossip grapevine. The more time young girls spend online and the more they share about themselves online, the more likely they are to be exposed to and be on the receiving end of cyberbullying.
How Does Technology Addiction Affect Cyberbullying?
In an article published by USA Today, child psychologist Dr. Paul Donahue explains, “kids are less likely to be spared [by the effects of cyberbullying] because it’s not just whispered about on Monday morning. It’s kind of a blaring-out on social media right away over the course of the next couple of days. The idea of the visual and video evidence is much more painful, especially for younger kids.”
While most kids aren’t posting with the intent to make other people feel bad, they are often not aware of the social responsibility that comes with having a public audience. By high school, many teens are better able to ignore that they are excluded from social events and understand that relationships are built on personal values. Younger kids are more likely to base their sense of identity and self-esteem on their social relationships and more of their social relationships consist of online interactions, as they have fewer opportunities to socialize outside of a school environment.
Young girls who have the tendency to people-please and seek others’ approval may be more likely to cling to their online identities as they try to cultivate their ideal self. If they have been rejected in a school setting, they are more likely to befriend strangers online, which gives the illusion of an authentic connection. As they discover a sense of belonging online, they become less attached to their offline relationships, which can be both adaptive and lead to greater anxiety when technology access is limited by parents who are concerned about their social skills.
Navigating Digital Privacy and Online Safety
While most social media platforms require users to be at least 13 years old, they also try to honor a sense of anonymity, which means that they do not ask for proof of age. This suggests some awareness that young users may be exposed to content that goes beyond their emotional maturity. At the same time, as users are beginning to create accounts at younger ages than recommended, many middle school girls feel left out if they don’t hop on the bandwagon and develop a public profile at a young age.
Many of the girls that come to Asheville Academy have experienced some degree of cyberbullying–either by being rejected by peers for the content they post, posting harmful screenshots of others to “expose them,” or participating in group chats that talk about others negatively. Often, they do not recognize that these all fall under the umbrella definition of cyberbullying. Instead, they may believe that “haters” are just part of internet culture. Some take pride in “going viral” or gaining an audience for posting negatively about others or being the victim of cyberbullying.
While students at Asheville Academy do not have access to social media on campus, discussions about digital privacy, online safety, and the effect of social media during individual and group therapy help prepare students to engage in social media on home visits or when they transition home. We recognize that social media has become central to many young girls’ social lives and that, as a result, setting limits around social media is perceived to be impossible and detrimental to one’s relationships long-term. In family therapy, we help educate parents on appropriate ways to monitor their child’s screen time and social media presence by acknowledging both the benefits and potential negative effects of social media use.
How Does Asheville Academy Help Girls Struggling with Technology Addiction?
Cyberbullying is just one consequence of addiction to social media platforms. Other types of technology addiction include social isolation and anxiety due to excessively playing video games, watching TV, or consuming other types of online content. It can be hard to address technology addiction, particularly in young girls, as it has become socially acceptable to be glued to screens. While older teens and young adults are better able to find a balance between their online lives and their offline goals and relationships, middle school girls are vulnerable to the effects of technology addiction on their emotional and academic development.
As a relationship-based program, Asheville Academy prioritizes teaching students how to strengthen their offline relationships through group therapy sessions on attachment styles, trust, and family dynamics, team-building exercises in small groups, and Equine-Assisted therapy. Online relationships require a unique set of social skills that don’t always apply to in-person interactions. Being surrounded by peers that have had similar experiences and struggles provides the opportunity to connect through stages of intimacy, rather than putting it all out there online and waiting for other people to “like” their posts.
Asheville Academy tries to focus on the practical use of technology, by integrating technology into classrooms as a useful study tool. Students utilize phone calls to connect with family members and video conferences during family therapy, which encourages them to develop stronger communication skills using technology. As many young people are used to communicating via text or commenting on other people’s posts, phone calls help families have more open-ended conversations about how they are doing and what they want to work on. As they progress through the program, students can earn the privilege of checking social media accounts under parent supervision and watching movies and playing video games in a social setting. These experiences encourage students to take advantage of the social aspects of technology as a tool for connection and information and set their own personal limits around what is considered healthy for them both socially and emotionally.
Cat brings more than thirty years of experience making an impact in the lives of adolescents. Cat has developed multiple programs helping children, teens, and young adults in a variety of settings and with a diverse range of diagnoses. She has dedicated her career to behavioral health and is honored to be part of the passionate team at Asheville Academy. She recognizes how delicate this age is and is proud of the role she and her team play in helping girls grow and prosper.