College and other transitions, social media help or hurt?

Transitions are challenging—from entering a new summer program to starting a new school to going off to college. Youth are facing these transitions with new forms of communication and self-presentation—yep, you got it...social media platforms. These platforms can both help and hinder these transitions and that is what I want to discuss today.

When it comes to getting new roommates, youth often use social media to do some pre-meeting investigation and connection. I know of teens who said they were already “friends” with their roommate before they ever met because of the cyber-snooping and SnapChatting they did over the summer. They felt having this friendship made the transition more comfortable.

Others have told me that this preconceived idea of who this new person was made them anxious about the upcoming transition because they didn’t like or felt intimidated by what they saw on the roommate's social feeds. My son Chase, after a gap year, is heading off to college next month and the university has a policy not to reveal roommate assignments before everyone gets to campus. The policy is written as such: “We have found that roommate relationships are more positive and successful when they start out with face-to-face interaction, rather than on preconceived notions based on fragments of information or online communications.”

Another issue college freshmen face is the constant contact they often maintain with their high school friends. This social tether is comforting but also at times can engender FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). We all know that most people often present their best experiences on social media. My co-producer’s son started college last year, and during his first semester, he told her that from looking at his high school friends’ social feeds he surmised that they were having more fun at their respective colleges than he was. This made him question his college choice, making him feel envious and lonely at times.

A young man who is about to enter his sophomore year in college told me how unexpectedly lonely he was for the first half of his freshman year. It was challenging to meet people that he related to. Before entering college he only heard how it was “so great” and “so fun” but no one ever mentioned how lonely it might be. For human connection, he frequently retreated to his phone to text his long-distance girlfriend. He realized that the crutch of ongoing communication with his girlfriend kept him from putting himself out there to meet people. Fortunately, during the second semester, he met a couple of people that he bonded with and now is looking forward to returning to college.

All of this makes me think of a 14-year-old patient I saw in my medical clinic two weeks ago. At the end of our visit, this was our conversation:

Me: “Are you taking any risks this summer?”

Teenager: He interrupted me “Oh no, no, I don’t do any risks” —clearly assuming I was referring to risks such as drugs.

Me: “No, no what I was going to ask is whether you are taking risks such as asking someone you might be shy about asking, to hang out? That would be a risk to ask them to do something, right?"

Him: “Oh gosh, yeah that’s true”

Me: “It can be so valuable to practice doing that—it can be hard, but, hey, you might get a new friend, so it could really be worth it. And, if you don’t, well, you've gotten better at risk-taking...in the positive sense of the word."

He smiled a genuine smile, and I could tell he was happy we had this little exchange.

How our teens decide to present themselves online as they enter new social worlds, and how often they take risks to meet potential friends, is a topic definitely worth discussing with our youth, even if they are just 7 years old. Here are some questions to get the conversation going.

  • How has technology helped you stay in contact with people you care about?
  • What are the upsides and downsides of so much ability to stay in touch with people?
  • How often are you surprised how different someone is in real life than on social media?
  • When was the last time (including you adults) that you took a risk and asked someone to hang out? How did it go?