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Social media carries significant risks for youths in recovery

February 20, 2015
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Think about the last time a little clumsiness in the wording of one your e-mails led to a big misunderstanding with the recipient. Now think of how that might have gone over if instead of being a one-on-one communication, that message had been read by hundreds of “friends” on social media. This helps illustrate the perils of the online world in which today's adolescents and young adults seem to prefer to reside.

Social media and other online technology are having numerous effects on the well-being of young people, both positive and negative. For those with substance use issues, technology is affecting the course of illness and inevitably will shape the journey into recovery. Yet these trends prove difficult to quantify precisely because, as a recently published parent handout from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation states, “By the time research on the impact of technology is complete, the findings are obsolete.”

“This is something of a wild horse,” says Joseph Lee, MD, medical director of Hazelden Betty Ford's youth continuum, who spoke with Addiction Professional this week. “I don't think people realize how different a subculture this is. We don't have parameters to understand it well.”

In a communication highlighting the release of its handout titled “Risk and Distortion: What Parents Need to Know About Coming of Age in Our Digital World,” Hazelden Betty Ford stated that its clinicians have observed greater social isolation and symptoms of post-traumatic stress among youths in treatment who spend a significant amount of time using social media. But Lee adds that both the effects of social media use and the messages a treatment program should share with families are nuanced, not completely negative. Technology can be a highly useful tool for recovery, he says, such as with Hazelden's own app that assists individuals with identifying recovery support options in the community.

“It's important not to be puritanical,” says Lee. “It is not something we should be afraid of.”

Activity at the extremes

The world of social media appears rife with conflicts, as its impacts end up being extreme on both ends of the spectrum, says Lee. Users can feel the embrace of 10,000 “likes,” but if they post something perceived as politically incorrect, even if it was because of a typo, they can be ostracized.

“Young people don't know the rules of engagement, but they are not naïve to getting blasted on a chat forum,” says Lee. “They've felt both sides of the blade. Many have been victims of cyber-bullying.”

Some young people, particularly those in early recovery, experience what has come to be known as the “Facebook effect.” The more friends they have, the more depressed they may feel when these individuals all start posting about the parties they're attending and the fun they're having, says Lee.

Other online features can serve as triggers for young people with substance use problems. One is simply the strong presence of substance-using young people on social media, and the easier access to substances through these channels. Also, Lee is especially concerned about dating apps that encourage risky behavior among youths who may venture from substance addiction to promiscuity.

“The psychology behind the lure of these apps is totally geared to people with addictive tendencies,” says Lee. “We see kids jumping from relationship to relationship, while not addressing the root causes of their addiction.”

Hazelden Betty Ford limits use of social media in its residential substance use treatment programs for adolescents, but patients have expanded access to technology when they transition to less intensive levels of care. “We can't be Big Brother with technology,” Lee says.

Messages for parents

Similarly, Lee indicates, treatment professionals should urge parents not to be dictatorial about every aspect of their children's use of technology and social media. Furthermore, he says, “The messenger is really important. Parents are just old-fashioned. Even though they have the right message about social media, they're out of touch.”

Parents need to look at the big picture when it comes to social media, Lee believes. “They need to ask, 'Is my child doing pro-social activities? Is my child's life balanced?'”

Still, he does believe there are areas on which parents should be encouraged to draw the line, such as “sexting” behavior. The Hazelden Betty Ford parent guide, with comments from business development director Jessica Wong, offers these other tips for parents:

  • Give the child a phone that is one generation older than the parent's, so that the parent will remain familiar with the phone's function.

  • Reset the home Wi-Fi password daily and share it only when the child has completed other responsibilities.

  • Set texting and talking allowances, and consider having the child contribute to paying the bill.