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Go Ask Mom

Social media and teens: Helping adolescents break negative patterns

Posted April 2

Adolescence can be a confusing time for just about any kid. It also can be the time of life when mental health and addiction issues begin, says Stephanie Zerwas, a Chapel Hill-based psychologist.

Zerwas, a mom of two, treats adolescents and their families at her private practice at UNC Mental Health Specialists. She also is the clinical director of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders. Later this month, she'll be speaking at the Right in the Middle conference for middle school girls and their moms on April 30 in Raleigh. Her focus will be media and its impact on girls.

"I’m passionate about giving kids and their parents the tools they need to avoid going down that path or reversing it as soon as it starts," Zerwas tells me. "I want to set them on the right track and learn how to cope with the big emotions that come with being a teenager and help them learn how to navigate those choppy waters."

Ahead of her talk at this month's conference, I checked in with Zerwas by email to learn more about her work and how parents can help our tween and teen girls as they navigate this tricky season in life. Here's our Q&A:

Go Ask Mom: You specialize in eating disorder treatment, but you also work with patients with depression and anxiety. Why did you choose this line of work and study?

Stephanie Zerwas: I initially didn’t intend to work with eating disorders at all. I was almost ready to graduate from my PhD program and I was planning on studying how toddlers learn to cooperate and pretend. But, for the very final year of my PhD, I completed a training program working with teenagers with eating disorders. I was surprised to find that I loved working with my patients and their families. I totally understood where they were coming from and it is always so rewarding to help someone on the journey to physical and psychological recovery. I’ve been lucky to continue this work as the clinical director of the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders.

Lots of people have ideas about what therapy looks like from the therapists they’ve seen in the movies or on television. But, really, therapy often looks nothing like those performances. Therapy gives you a chance to examine your emotions and the thinking patterns you fall into. It gives you a safe place to bounce off those ideas and question whether those thoughts are helping you or hurting you. It’s always an honor when people feel safe enough with me to do that.

GAM: What changes have you seen in your patients - particularly in tween and teen girls? How has social media played a role in the issues your patients are dealing with?

SZ: Social media can be an incredible way to stay connected. It helps you stay linked up with new friends from camp to your tribe at school to your cousins and family members. But, honestly, I’ve also seen how addictive it can be for kids. It’s hard to put that phone or device down and just focus on the friend in front of you.

That screen can also make it more likely that you’ll say or do things you’d never do in real life. I encourage the tweens and teens I know to “THINK” before they post. Is it thoughtful? Is it helpful? Is it inspiring? Is it necessary? Is it kind? If it’s not, maybe it’s best not to share it.

In addition, being on some social media can also make people so focused on their appearance. We’re finding new ways to modify our photos, adding makeup or even doing digital “plastic surgery.”

GAM: In your TEDxUNC talk last year (watch it below), you say body comparison is an especially dangerous thought pattern. What is it and why is it so bad?

SZ: It’s where you take a body part that belongs to someone else and compare yourself to it. You say, “Oh, everything would be great if I had her legs” or “I want his abs,” If you are using social media and pictures to compare your body to models or even your friends, it can be a really dangerous pattern to fall into and lead to some risky behavior patterns.

It’s important to reconsider whether being online is making you feel worse or better about yourself. I’m not saying to cut it off completely. But do be mindful about what you follow. Does it nourish and sustain you? Or does it tear you down?

GAM: Why do girls, in particular, get so caught up in these dangerous social media habits and thought patterns?

SZ: Being a teenager is a time to try on new roles, to experiment with new identities. Social media gives the perfect outlet to do that. I know some middle school girls who have three or even four profiles. Each one highlights a different aspect of themselves: the dancer, the singer or the comedian. Integrating all of those different components can be hard to do and figuring out who “you” are can be hard to do.

Also, we know from brain development research that comparing yourself to other people naturally just goes up during the teenage years. It’s a result of how your brain is developing. All of that comparison can put you at risk for feeling bad about yourself if you see someone who you think is prettier, smarter, more talented and often skinnier or more fit. And social media will always have people like that who seem like they have it all together. It only shows the highlight reel of other people’s lives.

GAM: How can parents - especially moms - do a better job parenting our tween and teen girls and guiding them toward a more healthy self image?

SZ: First, parents need to think really carefully about how they talk about themselves. Do you talk about how you’re so “bad” because you ate dessert? Or do you model moderation and let yourself have treats without guilt or shame?

Do you demonstrate compassion to yourself if you make a mistake or aren’t perfect? Or do you talk about how stupid you are or beat yourself up about it?

Do you complain about the size of your thighs? How your butt looks in your pants? The size of your belly? Or do you celebrate what your body can do for you and smile at your “flaws.”

We often think that kids aren’t listening when we talk to ourselves. But they’re often listening and observing more carefully than we ever know. Too many times parents (especially moms!) think that taking good care of themselves is selfish. The better you take care of you, the better able your kids will be to take care of themselves.

Editor's note: I highly recommend watching Zerwas' TEDxUNC talk and, if your kids are old enough, to watch it again with them. It is an eye opening discussion about how to break the negative thought patterns that come from social media.

Go Ask Mom features local moms every Monday.

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