In this video, Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist who specializes in social media’s impact on teens and tweens, says girls and boys negotiate the world differently and that plays into how they relate to each other on social media.
Embarrassment and shame. Those are the two emotions that clinical psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, says are the most difficult for anyone to handle. Especially when living in a social media culture where everything is on display.
“When we live in a world where you’re always on, that’s going to attack your self-esteem no matter who you are, but girls…are particularly vulnerable,” she said.
The tween and teen years can be filled with moments that intensify those feelings. Embarrassment triggered by a lack of friends or a lack of romantic attention. Shame triggered by bullying or body-conscious thoughts. All of these instances, which tweens and teens have dealt with since the beginning of time, are mercilessly magnified on social media, because now, there’s nowhere to hide.
“This is a new kind of childhood,” said Nancy Jo Sales, author of the book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. “It’s a new kind of teenage experience.”
Today it’s common practice for relationship statuses to be public knowledge, for weight-loss journeys to be documented with online photos, and for popularity to be defined by followers, “likes,” and retweets. Metrics that have always been so instrumental in determining an individual’s sense of self are now on public display and ripe for judgment. Moreover, thanks to the “screenshot,” negative posts or revealing pictures, for example, can be everlasting.
The “personal” has turned public, and that’s psychologically dangerous for young boys and girls because of the way in which their brains develop.
“Teenagers…what they’re known for is the illusion of invulnerability which means they have a belief that bad things only happen to other people,” Powell-Lunder said. “So that’s why we see high-risk behaviors in the teen years and social media encourages kids to reach out in ways that they never could before.”
She says the definition of a “teenager” extends well beyond 19 years of age.
“Right now we say that the teenage years actually go until the age of 25 and what this is based on really has to do with brain development…and throughout that time of development people are growing and thinking and they have the ability to think more insightfully,” Powell-Lunder said. “So that’s why you also have a progression in social media that follows that.”
The clinical psychologist also says that social media pushes individuals one step ahead in development.
“Tweens admire teens, teens admire young adults…that’s who our role models are, so we want to be like them, and the people who are out there developing social media and apps are very well aware of this,” Powell-Lunder said. “This is a huge market and they have a very willing audience, so they’re always one step ahead.”
The development of abstract thought can also amplify the importance of social success through the measuring of followers and “likes” online.
“When you think back to elementary school, we don’t really think about who was popular and who wasn’t popular, but…you ask any kid in middle school…who’s popular and who’s not, they will be able to tell you, and it has to do with brain development,” Powell-Lunder said. “It’s during the tween years that kids start to have the ability to use abstract thinking. They start looking at the world at large.”
She says this only intensifies in the teenage years when social media can be used to express opinions, create groups, and connect with friends.
But interacting online is not the same as interacting face-to-face. That’s because there’s a screen involved which can sometimes make it much easier to say something hurtful, talk to someone new, or post a revealing photo.
“When you’re not directly in touch with somebody, it’s like it puts up a wall,” Powell-Lunder said. “It shuts off your emotion. It’s not real and if it’s not real, you can do anything.”
That is particularly risky for adolescents.
“They are egocentric, so what that means is that they have the ability to use perspective taking but it’s not something that they will naturally do first,” the clinical psychologist said. “That’s why being separated by a screen really has an impact because it’s not their natural inclination to see something from another person’s point of view.”
That can lead to the production of all types of damaging content online, but Powell-Lunder says some of these qualities change over time.
“As we get older, we stop having the illusion of invulnerability,” she said. “Our brains develop. I always joke around with my grad students. I say to them, think about something you did last year…that was embarrassing and now you go, ‘what was I thinking?’ As we get older especially…your brain starts thinking differently.”
The challenge is navigating the tween and teen years without online encounters or posts detrimental enough to have a lasting impact.