As someone who works with adolescents, you probably know a lot about what they face. In addition to the social challenges of this age that teens traditionally have faced, now they have another entire world online to contend with. This world includes social media, sites about self-harm, pornography, and sexual predators. How much do you, as an addiction recovery or mental health provider, know about internet safety?
Social Media Use Amongst Teens
During COVID-19, staying connected through social media and online was largely a blessing. Even before that, there were many positive uses of social media, including staying connected with friends and family. Teens can game online together, create blogs, videos, and other content to share, and also go to school online. Apps like Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat are commonly found on phones, where teens are able to connect with one another and the world.
However, a 2021 study listed several of the risks of social media use as well, including:
- Harassment, threats, and other hostile behaviors
- Spreading of false information
- Sexting, exposure to sexual images, and interactions
- Depression, anxiety, and self-harm
- Exposure to alcohol or other substances
- Privacy and digital footprint issues
Some of the statistics surrounding these risks are frightening. This same study pointed out that 20% of adolescents had shared pictures online of themselves nude or semi-nude. Children who are exposed to alcohol and other substances on social media are more likely to use substances and also begin earlier than their peers. Another focus of the study was the impact that social media has on taking away time from studies, sports, and other activities.
Online Cyberbullying and Self-Harm
From the early years of the internet, cyberbullying has become a reality. Victims of these attacks can become depressed, withdrawn, and even suicidal. Cyberbullying is associated with low self-esteem, behavioral problems, and substance abuse. According to a 2018 study, cyberbullying is more dangerous than traditional bullying, as the risk of suicidal ideation and attempts are higher.
Self-harm that is not meant to be suicidal, such as cutting or burning, is known as nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) and has also become more common due to social media and online sites that teach teens about it. While those who engage in NSSI describe it as a relief for constant anxiety or tension, it is very dangerous and should be addressed. The current estimate, according to the study above, is that approximately 14% to 21% of adolescents and young adults have engaged in some form of NSSI.
The Dangers of Pornography
Children are increasingly exposed to pornography, as it is easily accessible from any device. What begins as curiosity about sexuality can turn into a serious addiction, while the mind is dulled to intimacy and human sexuality. Increases in sexual dysfunction in young adult males are becoming more common, and low self-esteem and relationship issues occur in both genders. Additionally, more females are becoming addicted to pornography as well.
Sextortion and Child Sex Trafficking
Pornography is not just dangerous to look at. More and more often, children and adolescents are groomed online and become victims of “sextortion.” According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in 2019, they received 16.9 million reports to their CyberTipline.
Predators groom children over time, gaining their trust or blackmailing them to entice them to send pictures, lure them into sex trafficking, or sexually molest or assault them. This can result in missing children, some of whom are also physically abused or murdered. Even for those who were photographed or filmed in child pornography, they face a neverending cycle of trauma as the images have been shared and cannot be retracted.
What Can You Do to Improve Internet Safety?
As a mental health care provider, you know that you are a court-mandated reporter of abuse, self-harm, and exploitation. Likely you work with teens who have faced some form of trauma from interactions over the internet. But what can be done to prevent it? A 2021 study published in the Kansas Journal of Medicine found that while parents report internet safety as a top concern, only 20% of healthcare providers surveyed reported providing counseling to their patients regarding safe internet usage, specifically, exposure to violent or sexual content or risky behaviors.
One of the reasons for the lack of education for the children was due to limited knowledge of internet safety by 47% of the healthcare providers. Which begs the question, how much do you know about internet safety? Can you teach parents and clients about avoiding risky internet behaviors, how to report cyberbullying or blackmail, or how to maintain privacy and keep their digital footprint to a minimum? Parents rarely know either, so educating yourself can help you teach adolescents and their parents about the prevention of internet harm.
Internet safety for adolescents is a serious concern. As a provider of mental health or addiction recovery treatment to adolescents, it is important that you stay educated about trends and dangers to be able to help educate families about safe internet usage. The stakes are too high, the risks too great, and the resulting trauma or loss is heartbreaking, but some education could help spare a lot of it. At Sustain Recovery, we understand the dangers of the internet. Our program helps teens understand the importance of using devices safely. We offer extended residential treatment to adolescents with addiction and co-occurring diagnoses. Located in Irvine, California, we offer our clients structure and support during treatment. We also connect them with continued support once they leave treatment to ensure continued recovery. Call us at (949) 407-9052 to find out if our program is the right fit for a client that has struggled in other settings.