Flying in the Danger Zone – Social Media and Mental Fitness
I have been a bit silent lately because of some interesting events in my life, but I wanted to address this topic because I have
- Seen postings about it on my feed
- Thought about this at length and want to address it.
A big part of my philosophy is having good to great mental health. This is so critical to overall fitness. Fitness is not just your ability to lift weight, ride a bike, swim a lap, or run some miles. Fitness is so much more. It is proper eating habits. It is getting enough sleep. It is understanding yourself. And, above all else it is having a great and stable mindset.
So, the challenge we have here is the mindset. Honestly, people fail at fitness and wellness because they lack the mental fortitude to succeed. Now, a pretty talented guy by the name of Scott Peck wrote a book called The Road Less Traveled where he dives into a few more things than I want to address right here, but the critical takeaways for me were his notions of discipline. These are the things I openly advocate and discuss. Remember, very few ideas are new anymore. They are simply subtle remixes of past ideas and framed in new ways to help people understand things. So, the concept of the discipline, according to Peck is laid out in the following steps:
- Delaying gratification: Sacrificing present comfort for future gains.
- Acceptance of responsibility: Accepting responsibility for one’s own decisions.
- Dedication to truth: Honesty, both in word and deed.
- Balancing: Handling conflicting requirements.
The basic premise is that life is difficult. We all probably realize this by now, especially those of us in our 40s. However, it is made much more difficult by the introduction of this new and very dangerous animal called social media. So, for the purposes of this posting, I want to focus on social media and the impact it has on us as individuals.
Social Media, Media, and the Long Lasting Effects on People
When we think of the negative influence of media, we tend to think about things like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and all these other instant media tools that expose us to the world. As parents and friends, we do our best to help those around us, but because life is difficult, we sometimes tend to let certain things slip (which is mostly unintentional). We strive to provide our children with the tools they need to be successful. In this day and age, that is the smartphone, the tablet, a computer, and other technological wonders.
But, we should remember that long before we had social media, we all were prisoners of the role that media played (and continues to play) in our lives. It is pretty easy when you think about it. How many times do you gaze at a magazine cover? When you watch those infomercials online, ever notice it is fit or attractive people? Department stores have increasingly smaller and bustier or larger and more muscular mannequins to display clothes? Everything is geared towards this mindset of attractive and fit and beautiful. We are constantly flooded with images, both direct and indirect, of these things – fit, slim, beautiful, handsome, etc. I promise you, there are companies out there that sit around for hours a day figuring out how to try to influence your thinking. They are trying to hack your subconscious so that you can feel shame and remorse about the choices you make if they do not align with the product they are selling. So, the After-Boomers and Generation X-ers have all grown up with this. We, as Gen X-ers, also dealt with the advent of technology. I still recall being in that transitional phase switching from typewriters to computer based word-processing. We witnessed the birth of the mainstream information age and now we are knee deep in this technology.
Enter our children. They are children of the technology age. We jokingly lament that they will never know a rotary phone. That they will never see the bag cellular phone. That they only know things like smartphones. That they bury their heads in those same smartphones and pay more attention to that universe than the universe around them. Well, this is pretty accurate. Now, technology is a tool. Much like a framer uses a hammer to hit a nail, technology is a tool to solve problems. But, the hammer was a passive tool. It was simply used to execute a task. Technology is an active tool. It can solve problems, but it can also create problems. It can send messages to people and we often cannot control them.
We have seen the effects of this over time. We see the stories of people being radicalized through online websites and forums. We have seen stories of children and young adults joining organizations that are dangerous to them and to others. We have seen people prey on others. We even created a term for this called “catfishing” and we have seen evidence of how dangerous this is. I can most definitely say that there are long term effects to technology and media use.
Social Media in Theory and Practice
So, a theory about social media is that it was designed to bring people together. But, if you look at the original concept of Facebook, it was designed to allow students in Ivy League schools to judge each other in a hot or not type situation. Sure, it has turned into a social media powerhouse, but that was its initial intention. A system built to judge. As we try to find the good in things, we want to argue that system like this build community and bring people closer together. It allows people to share their lives with friends so people can stay connected across great distances. We talk about socially sourced learning. We learn from others and social media allows us to do this. So, there are good intentions there. But, there is a saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
What social media has become is something more than a method to establish community. There is a terribly dark underside to this technology. It has created sites where fiction is held out to be fact. It has resulted in the incessant bullying and teasing of people. It has been used to shame and humiliate people through the spread of false stories, true stories, and worst of all, unflattering or embarrassing images. People have taken their lives because of this. It is scary for a parent to have to deal with this. But therein lies the rub, a parent is re-actively dealing with this. REACTIVE. This is the critical word.
I can only use my own experiences as a parent. So, I will. I have an adult son, who happened to be a teen during this blowup of social media. I spent many an hour talking to him in detail about social media and the challenges and pitfalls of this system. More importantly, I explained to him that social media was irrelevant to his life. Thanks Rod….great. You make it sound so easy. Social media is irrelevant to my kid’s life. Done. Thanks. Jackass.
But seriously, let’s think about this. If you take the time to start to show your kids from the beginning the dangers and the benefits of social media, then perhaps, just perhaps, they will not be enslaved by it. My first thought – why do you let your children even get on social media? Of course, I gave my son a choice and he chose not to engage in the system. He had a profile, but really, he just avoided it. But, let’s just say your kids really want to be a part of the social media movement and you agree to it. Well, now you have to do your due diligence as a parent. You have to explain the rules. You have to show them the consequences. You have to have those tough talks with them. I find that a lot of parents are reluctant to do that. They are reluctant to think that their kids can fall prey to these systems.
Let’s take the most common element. The selfie. Oy….the selfie is the bane of the existence of many a parent. The selfie has moved from the basic selfie of a person doing something silly to the scandalous selfie of a person doing something scandalous. Kids have no concept of the dangers of selfies. As a parent, you are also reluctant to talk to your angel about sending pictures of their privates to others. I would ask you to leave comments, but I will not…but how many of you have shown your kids images of “leaked” selfies? Hmm??? Any of you? Any of you show your kids pictures of that guy showing off his penis? Or that girl showing a very revealing look at her vagina? Probably not. Let’s just get past the legal thing here because if your child is underage, that constitutes child pornography and could get your kids into serious trouble, both as the sender and receiver of the images. Let’s assume they are of legal age. No laws being broken. Let’s assume your sweet little girl is deeply in love with that boy. She sends a picture of her breasts to him with a big smile on her face and blowing him a kiss. Six weeks later they break up in a bad way and all of a sudden that very private picture of her breasts is now flooding a private Facebook group or being texted around with some very unflattering comments about your daughter. Her friends either think her breasts are too perfect or really crappy…either way, they unleash the hate. They then send it out to even more people. Next thing you know, your little girl is getting all these jeers and sneers in school. Worse, they may have shared her cell phone number and she is getting lewd and obscene messages. However, you never took the time to talk to her about this possibility. Before you know it, her grades are suffering, she is withdrawn and sullen, and you have no clue what is going on.
This is why so many young women have hurt themselves. Or gone into hiding. Or been humiliated online. The same can be said for boys. Trust me, it is pretty traumatic for a kid who is navigating the journey of self-discovery to get told he has a small penis. Everyone says it. Or says it looks weird. Your son has no way to compare it with anyone else. He will certainly not look up facts to realize that the average penis size in the country is probably about 5.1 inches in length…hardly the record breaking length one would hope for (Journal of Urology, 1996). So, all of a sudden your son is beside himself because everyone thinks he has a small penis…and they say so in the most hurtful ways. Again, not like you try to prepare your kids for this. Who would? What parent is comfortable showing their child these images? Hence, if this ever happens, you are in a terribly reactive position trying to console your child. Right…that works so well.
Of course, those are images. What about words? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has written extensively on the concept of words that hurt and words that heal. He details how words can be devastating. Or they can be uplifting. Let’s take something very simple….like missing the game winning shot. Imagine you take that shot, since no one else has the courage to do so (or you simply got stuck with it) and you miss. People around you have two choices – uplift you or tear you down. Sure, we want to win and hitting that shot would be great. But, does missing it end the world? Is it that bad in the grander scheme of things? No. But in that moment, the choice will be made to say “you effing suck, loser” or “it’s okay, you did your best and we are proud of you, we will get them next time”. Yes, you still smart that you missed the shot, but you are not torn down by your peers. It makes a world of difference to know you are still supported and cared for even if you fail. Words can have a healing effect. Or they can be brutal.
As a parent, we have to teach our kids to tune out those words. But, what if we ourselves do not know how. We are slaves to words. We give them such power over us. So, in turn, we use them back in the most hurtful of ways. We will say demeaning things about others in retaliation for things said about us. We will use equally hurtful words to hurt others as we feel we have been hurt, or wronged. And the cycle continues. I myself have been guilty of this and still, on occasion, find my mind going to this place. It is hard to be the bigger person. To turn the proverbial cheek.
We are stuck in this endless and vicious cycle and we seem to be always living in this world.
How Do We Stop?
This is the most difficult question to answer. First off, it starts with us as adults and we have to pass it on to our children. It is about educating ourselves and focusing on that mental fitness so we can have better overall health.
We have to understand that words can be brutal, but that they are only brutal if we give them power. The more we empower them, feed them, the more powerful they become. So, you have to take that power back. Words are just that…words. They can be mean. They can be hurtful. They can sting. But, in the end, they are just words. And they can be ignored. We must learn to report these issues to a parent and to a person with authority. As parents, we must follow-up and document interactions with persons of authority. We must remember to warn our children of the dangers in words. We must work to build their self-esteem. We cannot all look fit and ripped. We come in all shapes and sizes. We have challenges to our lives. Words cannot define us. They cannot break us. They are simply that…words. The sooner you begin teaching kids this, the better. The more your children react to words, the more power they have. We have to teach ourselves and our children to remain calm and show little emotion to words.
How about images? Well, that one is way trickier. Oh man…that is a loaded gun. No joke. Kids especially are so self-conscious about themselves. Acne. Puberty. Growth spurts. Voice changing. Hair in weird places. You name it. It is difficult. Then, to top it all off, you have a revealing image of yourself circulating around the world on the internet now. Ouch. That hurts. It really does and you as a parent feel helpless. More importantly, you may even react angrily to the fact that the image exists. Or you make a futile attempt to contain it, which just confirms its existence and fuels its sharing even more. Reactive. Proactive. Establish rules.
- Tell your children if they do something like this, keep it neck down.
- Do not put your face in it.
- Don’t have your favorite teddy bear/personal item in the picture.
- Do not make it obvious it is you.
But, you must clearly explain to them and show them what happens when it is out there. You must show them proof that many before them have sent out these images and they end up online. You have to show them that if they want to play a dangerous game, there are dangerous consequences and they must be prepared mentally for the blow back that may occur. That silly old saying, “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” holds dangerously true.
This is the most difficult talk of all. You have to explain that taking one’s life is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. You have to impress upon your children that it is okay to talk to you. That there will be no recrimination or anger. That they are beautiful and handsome regardless of their appearance and that you could care less about these words or images and that they should chalk it up to a painful exercise in trust and move on with their lives. No, it will not be easy. And honestly, saying “I don’t give a fuck” doesn’t work. They will care. You will care. It will be tough. But, again…temporary. Fleeting. And one dumb action will not define a life of potential achievements. You have to show them that the media does not control them. They control themselves. The more unrelenting the pressure becomes, the more they need to remember that it is fleeting. That there are people in the world with real problems. That they life they would potentially sacrifice for something so silly is the life that a child dying of cancer would gladly like to have. Trust me, I bet a teen or young adult dying of cancer would gladly post a 1000 naked pictures online if it meant they got to live life….marry….have children…love….and laugh.
What we cannot do as adults is give in to the fear. We cannot stoop to the level of anger and frustration that we so often do. We have to remember that kids and people that do these things were just not taught better. And, if your kids do these things, then we have failed them in teaching that lesson. But, we do not have to compound that failure by making it worse. We have to start over. We have to teach self-love and confidence. It is not about how we look, but how we perceive ourselves.
See, this is a critical part of mental health. And mental health is a critical part of fitness. And fitness is not just lifting weights or being strong physically. It is about understanding yourself and your place in the world and loving yourself as you are. You change yourself for you, not for society. Not for someone else. Social media and technology is a tool. Nothing else. Tools can harm. But only if you let them. Education is critical. Self-love is so important. Grace and compassion from you as a parent is absolutely needed. And at the end of the day, just laughing it off is good advice. Sure, you may have to change schools. Home school. Or just change the paradigm, but again…so temporary. Life goes on. It is hard. But it is worth living.