Once upon a time, troubles at school ended when students went home.
There was separation, a break in the conflict, a cooling off period for cooler heads to prevail. Home was a refuge — a place of escape where teens could spend time to recover, relax and reset themselves for whatever came next.
There were no videos to drudge up and replay, no exchange of posted comments to fret over, no Instagram or Snapchat.
But “once upon a time” has come and gone and experts agree social media can be a major threat to the mental health and well-being of school-aged children.
“They don’t get to walk away,” said Michael Perrott, current president of the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association. “It’s a constant assault that tends to further escalate.”
All too often, conflicts that start at school rage online with the spreading of rumors and the back-and-forth posting of inflammatory comments.
Social media provides a mask, a vehicle to post comments we would not say to a person’s face, Perrott said. He added the postings can be direct or behind the person’s back, forcing the victim to be on guard for that false impression — that one side of the story.
Damage control and containment efforts are hampered by the ease of access to hundreds of people in a matter of seconds. “Word spreads much quicker with social media,” Perrott said.
In extreme cases, the constant worry could lead to anxiety and disrupt sleep patterns in teenagers who feel compelled to constantly check posts into the early morning hours. The result is they come to school lethargic and unable to focus on classwork.
All too often, what started as something between two students expands to include other students who chime in and get involved — even if they have no part in the relationship, said Johanna Jones, a counselor at Carlisle High School. “The kids are not able to pull away from it.”
In many cases, student involvement in online squabbles is tied to the need to fit in and be popular. “I wish I could get rid of the ‘click’ and the ‘like,’” said Doris Baboian, director of student services for Cumberland Valley School District. “Kids start to feel they are not worthy if they don’t have x number of likes on a page.”
A high school senior, Greenwood has seen this dynamic work in a different way. He knows of cases where teens have been barred or kicked out of online groups because of what they believe in or because they would not participate in a certain kind of behavior.
As the pressure mounts, an online exchange could blow up into a fight or shouting match between the feuding teens on school property. The problem is because the exchange takes place off campus and outside regular hours, school staff members are not always aware of the background context behind the conflict.
Home life intrudes
“One of my main roles is to remind teachers, administrators and everybody in the building that a kid is more than who they are between 7:49 a.m. and 2:45 p.m.,” Jones said. “There are all these other parts of their lives.”
Laura Keim is a health teacher at Wilson Middle School in Carlisle with about 15 years of experience in public education. “One of the issues we see is a breakdown in the home structure,” she said.
“A lot of kids come to us from mixed families, single-parent families or a bunch of different families living together,” Keim added. “Their lives tend to be upheaval and chaotic, and yet when they come to us, we want them to sit down, learn and be quiet. But they can’t leave it at the door anymore. They bring it in our classroom.”
Keim and Melissa Klingel are co-advisers of the Builders Club — a middle school program of Kiwanis International. This year club activities at Wilson have focused on trying to accentuate the positive in order to counteract the negativity of the many issues pressing on teenagers.
“There is just so much more we need to address with the student before we can even get to the business of teaching,” said Klingel, a family and consumer science teacher at Wilson. “We need to make sure these kids are OK outside of school before we can get started with our content.” Otherwise, the student is distracted because they feel unsafe.
Youth today are being exposed to TMI — Too Much Information. Jones has seen this take the form of parents divulging to their children the unpleasant details behind a divorce as if in a bid to use their children as an emotional crutch.
“Students are expected to come here to school, forget all about that and just do their school work,” Jones said. “They can’t really get away from those major problems at home.”
Coupled with this is 24/7 internet access to a broad range of images and ideas prior generations of teens were not aware of or didn’t have to contend with, Perrott said. “Whatever the topic ... whatever you want to see – all of that information is much more readily available.” The topics include methods of suicide and self-harm.
And it’s not just the internet. “They see it on television ... They see it in the movies,” Baboian said. “They hear it in the music. It’s really hard to shelter your child from that anymore.”
“I think they have a hard time differentiating what is true and what is not,” added JoAnn Coslett, a psychologist at Cumberland Valley High School.
Joel Hain is principal of Boiling Springs High School. As an administrator, he has seen social media take off in its influence while laws and school policies have lagged behind.
“I don’t think social media is a problem per se,” Hain said. “It’s an advancement that we need to embrace, but anytime you have advancement you have kids using it for negative reasons. We should not be reactionary. We should be proactive. We should be teaching our students how to do it responsibly.”
This includes teaching victims of cyberbullies how to reinforce their resolve and recognize the pettiness, Hain said. He added educators also need to impress upon offenders that there are consequences to their actions.
“Social media can go both ways,” said Samantha Benz, central and eastern Pennsylvania area director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “It can be used as a form of support.”
Benz mentioned how groups have formed online to rally behind individuals in need and provide them with a vital connection and outlet to vent emotion.
Students who are socially awkward or isolated at school can use social media as a vehicle to reach out to others and build a support network, said Geraldine Johnson, a behavioral specialist and bullying prevention coordinator with the Cumberland Valley School District.
The downside of that approach is an over-reliance on technology could stifle the person’s ability to handle the face-to-face interactions needed for meaningful relationships, Greenwood said. He added social media can be a good thing in that it helps a person maintain ties with old friends over great distances.
Social media has also been used by educators to share information and compare notes on emerging trends so that they are better equipped to help students.
For example, Hain has email access to every high school principal within the Capital Area Intermediate Unit. He has been known to use that network to pose questions to colleagues and to provide input on the questions they post.
Whenever Jones comes across an article or report, she forwards this information to teachers and staff so that they can keep up-to-date on the latest research on mental health issues affecting students.
Coslett came across an app a student had developed that connects teens sitting alone at lunchtime with teens willing to sit down with them.