Social media situation: Safety summit reveals how social media causes anxiety in youths

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Julie Smith paced between classroom tables as she fired off a list of social media apps.

Snapchat? Users sending messages shouldn't believe the hype they "disappear" after viewing.

Facebook? The mom jeans of social media. (LOL)

Instagram? A serious cause for anxiety in middle schoolers. Just see #beautycontest or #rateme for evidence.

Whisper, Secret, YikYak, ASKfm and After School? Users are anonymous. That's just asking for trouble.

The audible gasps from Catholic educators who attended Smith's presentation at the Health and Safety Summit at John F. Kennedy Catholic High School were a reaction to the stark reality: social media is a major part of young people's lives, and it can cause them much anxiety.

"If you're hoping I'm going to tell you all the ways social media is bad, I'm going to disappoint you," Smith said at breakout session at the summit, which drew about 350 attendees. "I'm also not going to tell you social media is fantastic. What I'm going to tell you is that it's a tool — it depends on how it's used like anything else."

Teens spend an average of nine to 11 hours online, said Smith, an adjunct professor at Webster University and SIUE who has been teaching media literacy to youths and adults for more than two decades. A generation used to being entertained all the time is using social media to foster a sense of self-worth, through likes and affirming words, from peers and total strangers, she said.

The media tend to cover the more obvious issues with social media, including bullying, stalking and sexting. And while that's important, "I think they are missing a major point," she said. "This is how kids are determining their value and worth, and nobody is talking about that. When we had a bad day at school, we could go home and escape it. There is no escape for them, and I think that's where a lot of that anxiety comes from."

Young people are being judged by what they say and do, how they look and what party they weren't invited to — and it's all taken to heart, said Ellen Wunderlich, a mom of three and teacher at Holy Infant School in Ballwin, who attended Smith's talk.

"I want to know what I can do to reinforce to my daughters and son and students that they have self-worth," she said. "Real people love them unconditionally. Above all, God loves them. He made them unique and wonderful in their own way, and that should be celebrated, not judged."

In presentations to parents and teens, Paul Masek, founder of the REAP Team, the archdiocesan youth retreat ministry, explains that "social media is a window into your kid's life. I ask them: How would you like it if some random stranger was looking into your bedroom window watching what you're doing? That's what it feels like."

One of the best ways to help young people navigate social media is for parents to be engaged with their children, Masek said. He cited an example in which his teenage son posted something on Twitter about having a bad day. Masek has set up an alert that notifies him anytime one of his kids posts something to Twitter. "I immediately called him and said, let's talk about this." Masek also encouraged him to let his parents or a sibling know before posting something like that again.

In moments like these, "it's important to be in touch with the Holy Spirit, because the right words at the right time can be helpful," he said. "The Holy Spirit knows my heart and where my kids' hearts are at and it can help us communicate what's most helpful at the time. We need to be developing our own relationship and self-worth with God, as His sons and daughters. Then we can communicate that well to other people."

The face of social media is constantly changing, and that's what makes it exciting — and terrifying at the same time, said Smith. "My sister teaches math and I'm like, 'Ha ha yours has been the same for thousands of years.' You never know what's around the corner, and we've got to help them be ready." 

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