'A person’s sense of security can be dented': Cork counsellor on effects of social media usage 

"Their sense of identity is also affected." 
'A person’s sense of security can be dented': Cork counsellor on effects of social media usage 

Mr Heffernan is seeing more and more teenagers coming to him with self-esteem issues and addictive tendencies related to social media.

PANIC attacks, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation are all issues presenting in young people being seen by counsellor Joe Heffernan who has said that social media is affecting human development.

Mr Heffernan, who has been counselling for the past 23 years, said he is seeing more and more teenagers coming to him with self-esteem issues and addictive tendencies related to social media.

“I would do individual counselling and psychotherapy, etc, and if one was to categorise the issues that come up, I think anxiety is probably the most regular issue that arises, depression, relationships troubles. They would be quite high on the list.

“In recent years, social media from the point of view of, the effect it can have on young people where self-esteem and such issues would be very high on the agenda.

“Social media on a daily basis can of course be linked to anxiety and depression. 

There is a bit of a dopamine hit when one gets likes, etc, but I suppose many people may feel inadequate in comparison to what others post.”

Mr Heffernan is seeing more and more teenagers coming to him with self-esteem issues and addictive tendencies related to social media. Picture: Larry Cummins
Mr Heffernan is seeing more and more teenagers coming to him with self-esteem issues and addictive tendencies related to social media. Picture: Larry Cummins

The counsellor explained how social media has an effect on young people.

“There are five building blocks for self-esteem. Security, identity, belonging, purposes and competence.

“I think social media had the potential to put a deep dent in each of those, our sense of security can become dependent on others than on ourselves. ‘Who am I?’ depends on popularity online.

“A person’s sense of security can be dented by messages of criticism or abuse. Their sense of identity is also affected. ‘Am I the person who has the most modern smartphone and who is adept at using social media and gets lots of likes, is that who I really am?

“Even though I haven’t really had a heart to heart or eye contact with anyone in a while.’ Our sense of belonging can be dented as well, who do I belong to, my online WhatsApp group or my family? The more you use it, the more isolated you can become. A sense of purpose can be coloured by the image you can put out there. Is that your goal, rather than something more real or fundamental?”

Addiction to social media 

Joe, who studied counselling at psychotherapy in UCC in Cork and is accredited from IACP said all addictive statements made about addiction, can be applied to social media.

“The definition of addiction, universally, is when one continues to indulge in a substance or behaviour regardless of the fact that it causing disruption or something negative in their lives, if you keep doing it when it is having an ill effect on you, that can be termed as an addiction.”

Mr Heffernan said he thought the problems of the world were almost too accessible now and this was an issue.

“The way I see it, I think we live in a very fragile world, there was a time when something that happened in America, South America, Asia, it would eventually get through via radio, etc, but now it is a notification in minutes, the Taliban are back in action, we could be without light if the wind farms don’t generate enough electricity, America is no longer the dependable democracy in the world, it is a very disunited states and we are getting this ‘ping’ ‘ping’ ‘ping’ on the phone.

“It is more and more instant bad news and I think that gives rise to anxiety. 

"I worry an awful lot about things, generation rent, job insecurity, poverty, these are things we were not as aware of. It seems to be a very fragile world and it is in our face, literally. It is totally unavoidable.”

In terms of solutions, the experienced counsellor said: “Regulation, moderation, awareness and discretion.” Mr Heffernan said we need to be aware of the problem.

“Awareness is curative. Social media can become a real problem.

“What we need is moderation, that we don’t live on our phones, it’s hard to resist a notification, and what happens is not what is really the governing body of our moods, it is how we perceive them. 

"Shakespeare said, ‘nothing is good, nothing is bad, but thinking makes it so. It is our perception of the world that affects our behaviour.”

Regulation

In terms of regulation, Joe said an independent body or government department needs to step in. 

"We hear a lot about self-regulation, but I don’t think anyone can say our self-regulation in our teenage years was up there in our daily lives.

“Regulation should be done by an independent body. The likes of Facebook, we know, prioritise profits over people, they are not going to really be into self-regulation if it means the bottom line income is to dip by any point at all.

“It should be regulated by an independent body. Because the thing can run riot and needs regulation.” 

In terms of discretion, Mr Heffernan said don’t believe everything that pops up on your phone.

“People should be taught to be discerning. Just because it is here or there doesn’t mean it is valid. To be able to distinguish between what makes sense and what to reject as being non-helpful in your life is very important.”

Finally, Mr Heffernan encourages people to live in the real world.

“You shouldn’t live in a virtual world, communication is not looking at screens but between two people with eye contact and body language, not two people tapping on a screen.

“If primary school students hear that they might start to think about it. There are many people, 14, 15, 16 might not have heard that. That would be a different way of thinking for them.”

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