The rush of social media feels just like a gambler's high but has stakes even greater.
When I was growing up, my parents loved to go to casinos. I became really familiar with something called "gambler's high." I can recall this feeling — a sense of momentary and intermittent euphoria and gratification — as far back as in the game rooms of my youth as I begged my father for another quarter while we waited for my mother to be ready to depart the casino.
I learned about it even more powerfully after I hit my first jackpot on a poker machine in Atlantic City. After that, I kept revisiting poker machines in casinos everywhere to try to get back to that euphoric feeling of being a winner.
Then, in graduate school, I discovered Facebook.
The feelings after I would post something and wait for people to notice were very familiar to me. They felt just like that space right before you know whether or not the ace will be the next card to complete your royal flush.
There is a powerful conditioning situation occurring for all of us when we engage on social media.
If this type of reinforcement is powerful for us as adults, it's got an even bigger hold on our teens just because of the nature of adolescence.
Adolescence is a time in our lives when we begin to separate from our families. I see it in my 14 year old. He would much rather engage virtually with his peers than relate to us in the ways he has for the last 13 years. It is a normal developmental marker for a child to step out in to the world and try to find his way without his parents (even if it does initiate abandonment issues for us!).
Kids also tend to be risk takers at this time in their lives.
That’s why our insurance rates climb so dramatically after they get their license. The insurance companies know just how risky some of the behaviors of teens are and they capitalize on that.
Putting yourself out there on social media is risky. Especially for a teen. A teenager saying “yes, this is me and these are the things I like,” is one of the riskiest things they can engage in at that time of their lives.
Risk is different for adults. We care less once we get in our 40s and 50s whether or not our acquaintance from high school will agree with our taste in music or our political views. Some of us are even willingly to challenge our friendships by posting the most outlandish thing we can find to share.
But for kids, this is the mother of all risks — the equivalent of sky diving.
“As I step out into the world and away from my parents, who will like me?” Moreover,” who will accept me?” “Am I worthy enough to be part of a tribe?”
It is a rite of passage to create this kind of distress in our adolescence because it is the grounds on which we determine our worthiness. And if we’re accepted, then we will go forth and engage from that place of worthiness and our framework will be one of “the world is a safe place and I am safe within it.”
However, if we are traumatized in this risk taking space or the feedback we get aligns with a belief system we’ve already been trying out; the world can become a scary place.
That scary place is the birthplace of addiction, depression and anxiety.
When we see the world as an unsafe place, our developmental trajectory changes.
Now we see others as meaning us harm and out to get us wherever we go. From that place, we grow angrier every day and before we know it, we’re the 30 year old with raging anger that struggles interpersonally, in our careers and most awfully in our internal lives.
Our children are more prone to navigating the world this way if their caretakers have also been traumatized into believing they are unworthy. When we, as collective adults and young adults, turn to external sources to discover who we are in the world it can get pretty dicey. Teens are predisposed to making a rash decision from one moment that could affect their entire lives. If, as a teen, I am rejected on social media, it is possible that the next 20 or more years of my life could be framed in such a way that I replay rejection scenarios over and over.
I’m happy for my son that he’s brave enough to try his hand at living freely in this world. I feel like I’ve done a good job as a parent giving him the space to grow outside of his relationship to me.
I can’t help but have some concern for him and his peers because I have the perspective of hindsight. While waiting for the jackpot, life has a way of passing you by.