Social Media Can Make You Happy

I am now the mother of a teenager. I was geared up for the arrival of hormones and huffs but so far it is not nearly as emotionally challenging as I was expecting, although we are only a few weeks in. I feel nervous having typed this; the precursor to it all going wrong must surely be showing off online about how well you are doing something.

Which links neatly to the unexpected adversary of parenting in the teenage years I had not really given much thought to – Social Media.

I am a stickler for rules, so no one in my house was having access to anything they had to give fake ID for. 13 is the golden age where most of these apps become ‘legal’ so having a teenager means I have just entered the world of online parenting.

The media is full of stories about how Smart Phones are destroying a generation, ruining lives and causing a mental health crisis. While I know from experience working with young people that there are risks, I also know that Smart Phones are here to stay. Short of moving to a desert island to raise my kids (and I can’t even imagine parenting without Google so that’s not going to happen), there’s no question that they will play a large part in their lives and that Social Media, whether now or in the future, will be part of that.

Maybe this is a result of cognitive dissonance, but I genuinely feel that Social Media has been a mostly positive influence in my life. It has helped me get to know people better who might have otherwise just been passing acquaintances. Social Media has introduced me to books, music, films, events and ideas I would never have known about otherwise. It makes me feel supported, sometimes very practically (“Has anyone got an animal costume I can borrow tomorrow?”). Social Media entertains me, challenges me and gives me a place to share.

I do know that it is not without risks. Sometimes, I take things personally. Sometimes I see sides of people I wish I hadn’t. Sometimes I show sides of myself I wish I hadn’t. I can easily lose an hour browsing that could have been better spent doing something more productive. Still, I think the benefits outweigh the risks, so long as I manage them carefully. I think how you view and do Social Media determines whether it enhances or ensnares you.

It has been eye-opening to see how different a teenager’s experience of Social Media is to my own. I scroll through my daughter’s newly established Instagram feed and see no female faces which have not been electronically modified. While this is done explicitly – everyone knows girls don’t have cat ears – I wonder about the psychological effect of seeing this new ‘normal’ face, with a tiny chin, enlarged eyes and perfect skin, over and over again. Girls seem to comment almost exclusively on how beautifully each other is. And beside this, the boys faces are unaltered and their chat focused on what they are doing. As a feminist this concerns me. As a psychologist, seeing the impact on mental health of this life lived in comparison, it terrifies me.

But as with all terrorism, the power is in the fear. So what if I refuse to be afraid? What if I believe instead that Social Media can be good and look for a way to navigate through it both for myself and for my children? What if Social Media can not only be neutralised but actually be used to make you happy?

Happiness research is a real thing. You can study for degrees in happiness at Ivy League universities. This is not a frivolous topic. Happy countries have better economics. Happy workers are more productive. Happy people cost society less. And happy teenagers save parents sleepless nights (and the need for photographic filters on Social Media).

So what if some of the principles of happiness were applied to Social Media? How would that change how we view it and how we do it?

Bill O’Hanlon has inspired much of my approach to work. In my personal life I have found his acronym for happiness a helpful driver in decision making. He has distilled the research on happiness into 4 key factors which everyone needs: SOAP. I’m now thinking of how I might clean up my little corner of the internet applying it. I’m wondering if it might help me lay down some guidelines to help my daughter stay happy on Social Media too.

  • Social Connections

  • Optimism

  • Appreciation

  • Purpose

Social Connections

The happiest people have strong social connections. The evidence of course relates to real-life relationships. Still, it feels like a good start. There is definitely potential for increasing socially connection through social media. Connections are not automatically positive and nowhere is this more true than online. I think it can be helpful to distinguish connections that drain from those that energise.

Drains make you feel less. Sometimes that’s through consistently negative posts. Sometimes you just find yourself feeling ‘less’ having looked at their updates. If their posts make you feel less beautiful, less accomplished, less successful, it doesn’t really matter if it’s their fault or yours for making the comparison, don’t spend time looking.

It’s possible to maintain friends without looking at what they post online all the time. I don’t even need to unfriend them. I can just stop their updates from showing on my timeline. Maybe when I am in a better place I can appreciate their shares for what they are. For now, if it’s making me compare, I need to step away from the screen.

Energisers‘ posts make you laugh, make you think, make you feel connected to them. Sometimes they’ll post things that make you compare a little but overall seeing what they post makes you feel better. I have energising online friends who I never meet in real-life but they impact on my day to day life immensely by what they share.

So my advice to my daughter is, Try to be an energiser. Be real. Only say things you’d say in real life. Ask yourself whether what you’re posting is likely to make people feel better about themselves or worse. Make people laugh. Post things that will make people think. Be brave enough to share your opinions and humble enough to listen to ones that are different yours. Don’t be scared to reach out to ask for or offer help. Choose your connections carefully. Only connect with people you know and filter what you follow based on how it makes you feel.

Optimism

Looking for positives rather than negatives leads to longer, more satisfied life. Obviously connecting with Energisers is going to build up optimism but sometimes we have to work at it ourselves. Optimism is a habit that can be practised and built. Even habitual pessimists can train themselves to catch negative thinking and check what an alternative explanation might be. Is that person showing off or might they be looking for affirmation because they are feeling vulnerable? Is that comment definitely directed at me or might it mean something else?

Teenage daughter, please write positively on Social Media; you’ll feel better about yourself and maybe encourage others to at the same time. Avoid judging people harshly by wondering what is behind what they post. If you are seeing anger or cruelty, it’s probably coming from fear or sadness. You can’t control that but you can choose kindness. If that isn’t working you can choose not to look at what someone is writing. Always try to be your most optimistic self online. What you focus on is what will fill your mind.

Appreciation

Gratitude can be used to effectively change how people feel about their lives. Appreciation is also the antidote to comparison, the ever present danger of Social Media. I have discovered that when I feel jealous of someone, complimenting the very thing I feel jealous of, extinguishes the negative feeling. The more I practise it the better I get.

Social Media can be used for complaining about all that you feel is wrong in the world or it can be used to celebrate all that you feel is right. I love people who celebrate nature, beauty and creativity online. Someone I know recently set up a Facebook page solely for sharing what local people love about the town we live in. The communal sense of gratitude is good for us all.

I do have some reservations about #soblessed posts which feel too close to showing off but maybe that’s just my West of Scotland cultural bias showing up. Gratitude always works for the grateful but it helps to be mindful about how it might affect the onlooker. Will it lead people to compare their own lives and feel they come up short? I think gratitude firmly placed in reality helps avoid this. My kids are both wonderful and a huge source of stress. I could take a photo for Facebook in the only tidy corner of my house or I could just take it amidst the reality. I am definitely drawn to the former but am fairly confident that the latter would make other people feel better.

Daughter, you already know the power of gratitude, writing down things you are thankful for every day. Social Media gives you a platform to focus on what you feel is good in the world or to complain about what isn’t. Choose to be grateful for what you have especially when you feel jealous of what you don’t have. Say thank you often. Give genuine compliments freely. Notice what is good in the world and keep notes, in photographs and words. Moments will come when it will help to look back on them.

Purpose

The final common factor found in happy people is a sense of purpose in life. Social Media can unfortunately drive a particularly negative purpose in life, one of making an impression and creating a perfect life. Depending on your connections, some sites can feel like there is room for nothing but this. I fear that for teenagers this is possibly more of a risk. With the right connections though, you can see the power of social media to work for good.

Politics has been re-energised by the ability to share information and debate on Social Media. As it becomes more apparent how manipulated the mainstream media can be in this era of Fake News, Social Media can offer an alternative. As long as we avoid sitting in echo chambers of our own beliefs and are open to alternatives, Social Media can be a place of learning and social change.

As a Christian, I have found myself despairing at times of the public face of my faith. Through Social Media I have discovered bloggers who share my sense of social justice as well as my feminism and faith. They have empowered me, educated me and restored my sense of purpose in the world.

Finally to my daughter I say, Remember your life is not about how you look or who you impress. Your life is about being the best version of you, the bravest, kindest version you can manage to be in whatever situation you find yourself. Even now what you share or how you respond will share values with the world. Find people to follow who live for a bigger purpose and learn from them. And I hope as you grow you’ll use your wisdom and words to make a difference to those who have no voice.

The teenage years are a time of growth and learning, a time when mistakes will be made. Some of them will be made in Social Media. This is much more difficult than in my youth, when mistakes faded with time. So for the next few years, I will be monitoring my children’s use of Social Media carefully. I could view this as an extra responsibility I could do without. Or I could view it as an opportunity to Socially connect with my kids. I could view it Optimistically and Appreciate the opportunities it offers. I could even use it to develop a shared sense of Purpose to our lives. Yes, I think Social Media could make us happy. As long as we are in it together.

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Homework

It was with delight that I received a letter from my children’s school explaining their new approach to homework – that the only thing children would be expected to do at home would be to read, enjoy and talk about books.  The whooping and dancing were not reflective of a neglectful approach to parenting.  Not that I am NEVER guilty of that.  My daughter no longer gives me letters that have to be returned to school; she just holds them for me to read, hands me a pen to sign on the line and whips it away before I can accidentally recycle it or write a shopping list on it.  (That I recycle and write shopping lists must surely be seen as evidence that I TRY not to neglect either the planet or my children.)

My response to the homework policy was as a professional working in education who sees this issue from both sides.  And on neither side do I see it working.

Professor John Hattie is a highly respected researcher in education, who has been described as “possibly the world’s most influential education academic” by the Times Educational Supplement. He has spent years studying what influences learning, analysing studies from around the world, covering 80 million students.  His Visible Learning approach, which encourages teachers to use the approaches that actually make a difference, has been adopted by schools around the world and many here in Scotland.

Within this it is interesting to discover that, contrary to the firmly held beliefs of parents and teachers alike, homework has little impact until children are of secondary school age.  While schools have embraced the rest of Hattie’s work, many have been nervous about acting on this.  Why is this?  I think the answer might be us – parents.

I have been interested in parents’ responses to this change in our school.  Many are delighted to feel they are being given some time to enjoy their children after school. Some are relieved to no longer have to battle through activities that their children resist with passion.  Other however, have concerns about the potential risks of leaving homework altogether.  They see homework as a key pillar of education and are worried that removing it will leave the whole endeavour less safe as a result.  This can be even more the case for parents worried that their children are not keeping up with their peers.

It strikes me as being a bit like the case for antibiotics from your GP.  When my children are really ill, I desperately want them to be better and go to the GP hopeful that there will be some magic medicine to achieve this.  However, the doctor knows that most of the illnesses she sees wont be affected by antibiotics.  Indeed giving them may be counterproductive, building resistance for when they are really needed.  So my GP does not respond to my pleading eyes and write a prescription to make ME feel better.  She trusts her professional knowledge instead and rises to her responsibility to do what is best for my child.  And although it feels disappointing at the time, I trust the training and ongoing study of my GP and know that she will be there to continue to support us and change her approach if necessary.

I have heard that there are some GPs who do prescribe more freely, perhaps because it is easier, but I believe that this is lessening as the evidence becomes more widely known and public opinion changes accordingly.

Similarly with homework, we parents want our children to have the best opportunities to learn and develop with a view to becoming the best they can be.  Just like wanting our children to be well, this is a positive attitude.  However, when considering the means to achieve it we need to trust the professionals tasked with knowing this.  While our gut feeling might be that more work must be better and that we have a responsibility to help with this, the evidence does not back this up, at primary school.  Indeed, my experience as a parent is that homework takes time away from enjoying activities together, adds pressure to family life and doesn’t actually influence my children’s learning.

My children tend to find their homework straightforward and I used to be a teacher, so it’s not difficult for me to help them when they don’t.  Yet, still I find it a stress.  How much more difficult must it be then for children who are struggling and whose parents haven’t been trained to teach them, not to mention those who have other pressures in life that must take precedence over ‘rainbow writing’.  To be putting families under this pressure when it DOES NOT WORK, is wrong.

As a professional, often working with children who are finding school particularly difficult, I frequently have to reassure parents and talk them out of their plans to hire tutors and buy all sorts of well marketed products to save their child from going under.  Ironically, it is often the pressure of doing more and more of what they find difficult that leaves them feeling like they are drowning.  Most teachers I speak to agree with me on this and will tell parents to leave it if children are struggling or  are finding it too stressful.  Yet few have the confidence to stop giving homework altogether.  Our schools need confident, well informed leaders to make such a grand change.

Now, just like the GP, the well-trained teacher will be able to assess and respond to individual situations according to their need.  For some children, in some circumstances, doing some work at home might well be helpful.  However, giving everyone homework to tackle that would be like giving my children antibiotics every time they have a sore throat just in case it is tonsillitis, without even looking in their mouths.

As an aside, I wonder if part of the issue here is the gradual erosion of trust in public sector workers that has taken place over the last few decades.  New Public Management approaches encouraged the questioning of public sector professionals and made them answerable to their service users.  And while I don’t disagree with this in principle – I think I should be answerable to the people I work with and often tell parents it is their job to ask questions – I do wonder if an unfortunate side effect has been to make the public forget just how much training and expertise a professional has.

Teachers are better trained and more knowledgeable now than they have ever been.  It amazes me how much they are expected to know and that they achieve this with calm professionalism, occasionally seeking advice from others like myself when they discover there is more they need to know.

If you as a parent feel strongly that your child needs more input on a particular area, of course you can do whatever you feel will help them.  Or better still, talk to your school about your concerns.  In my experience of working with lots of headteachers in lots of schools, I find that the ones most ready to stand up for their principles are also the ones most open to listening to parents and taking their concerns seriously.  The best schools develop not from a ‘them and us’ approach between parents and staff but from parents listening to and supporting their teachers, knowing that they will be listened to and supported in return.

If your school is changing its policy on homework, or anything else, find out why and if you find teachers studying what works best and being brave enough to do it despite cultural norms, congratulate yourself on your luck.  You’ve got a good team.

Our school policy is not to do no homework at all.  It is to focus on reading.  This reflects the national Reading Challenge that has been launched in Scotland, which recognises the importance of reading as a building block for all educational achievement.  The school has also been quite explicit about parents spending time with their children enjoying and talking about books.  So it is not the ‘reading homework’ that I remember of robotically reading a page of words then wondering why Janet wasn’t yet bored with John.  This is about doing what many parents do anyway – cuddling in, reading stories and developing language and literacy skills in a safe and comforting environment.  It also encourages us to keep this going beyond the early years.  My 11 year old, competent reader still enjoys being read to at night, and this allows her to enjoy books that would be more difficult for her to appreciate on her own.  (I am loving Little Women but good luck to anyone trying to read Treasure Island aloud – sentences so long you must surely develop a diver’s breathing capacity in the process.)

I am glad our school leaders are being brave in this.  I don’t want my children to be in a school – or a GP practice- where decisions are made my majority rule.  I want them to be cared for by professionals who know their field and have the confidence to stand up for what’s right. And I intend to stand by them while they do.

 

 

 

 

Have Courage and Be Kind

My daughter and I have been keeping a journal together.  We both like writing.  Sometimes it is easier to work out and express what you feel through writing than it is by talking.  It’s fun to do it together and I am trying to grasp the moment before her diaries (and internal thoughts?) are off limits.

The journal contains some light-hearted fun lists and questions about life but also leaves space for you to improvise your own topics and ask questions.   This makes it easier for us to tackle potentially embarrassing situations.  In principle this is good but in reality can lead to quite a lot of stress on my part when I have to answer something difficult. In writing. There will be a record of my answer that I can’t later deny or redraft, which is quite intimidating for someone with perfectionist and people-pleasing tendencies.

It’s a challenge.  But then again, I find that most things in life worth doing are, so I am leaning in.

The question currently threatening me from the journal is “What does it feel like to fall in love?”.  I have been sitting with this for a couple of weeks now, feeling a bit overwhelmed if I am honest.  I feel like I need a whole book to explain falling in, and more importantly – STAYING in love.  And the book needs to be written by someone else.   I certainly can’t do it justice in an A5 page.

As a compromise I am going to try and figure it out here and see if my daughter will allow me to publish it.  If not, this may be my first private post.

The clock has been ticking on my overdue Journal Homework and I was beginning to think inspiration would never strike. Until today, when it did, from quite an unexpected source:  Disney’s Cinderella.

Part of my reluctance in writing about falling in love, is feeling a responsibility to balance up the Hollywood ideas of love that dominate our culture.  In my experience, these are at best are misleading and potentially quite damaging.  How many relationships are lost when they stop feeling like the feelings we get watching ‘love’ on the big screen?

However, my daughter is 10.  I need to remember that this is an age where it is nice to believe in magic.  My job, at the moment, is to protect her from the harsh realities of life rather than introduce them to her.

You can see the dilemma.  Do I write a sweet answer for a 10 year old or one that her future teenage/adult self can read?  If I am going to leave a written record of life lessons I need to make it good.  This may be used against me in a future dating debate.

Given my feminist leanings, going as a family to watch a traditional tale of a poor girl who is treated badly by other women and needs a prince to save her so she can live happily ever after was not an obvious choice.  However, it was the Kids AM showing so with 6 of us to pay for it was the only choice.  Economy won over idealism.  It happens.

I approached Cinderella with caution.

I am surprised to find myself reporting that I LOVED IT!  Cinderella was not saved by the prince. She saved herself by following the rule her dying mum left her:  Have courage and be kind.  This is a version of our family rule: Be brave and kind. My tears started falling at that line and continued on and off throughout the film.

Let me confess – I cry very easily.  I always have but since becoming a mum I cry at the drop of a (tiny bobbled) hat.  I especially cry at films involving any kind of child-parent relationship. So parents dying are pretty much a guarantee of a minor life-analysing breakdown for me.  Despite Cinderella losing both of her parents, this was super-emotional even by my emotionally-unhinged standards.  I think it was the mixture of feeling the romance of the film alongside genuine wisdom about love.   The answer to my homework was right there.

The Cinderella Theory of Falling and Staying in Love.

I think falling in love is like going to the ball.  It is magical.  You find yourself in a new world of 2. Everyone else becomes an extra.  They gently move to the side to allow you to spin around together experiencing this new glow from every angle. You are light on your feet.  Your tummy flutters.  You feel beautiful and special and cherished.  The love songs suddenly make sense.   You don’t pay much attention to the world around but when you glance at it, it all seems more beautiful too. Everything is shiny and new.   At the ball, everyone looks their best.  Everything is scrubbed clean and it feels like it will last forever.  Falling in love is wonderful.

But then the clock strikes 12.  There is a time limit on the magic because the magic isn’t real.

Staying in love is leaving the ball and choosing not to give stop loving.  The magic disappears.  The perfect ‘you’ – all the beautiful parts of you that Love noticed and helped to grow – is joined by the other parts. Tired parts. Insecure parts.  Selfish parts.  The glow disappears and the extras come back into focus.  The rest of life is still there – work, other relationships, illness, fear, baggage we’ve carried for a long time.  This happens to both and love is no longer a magical feeling.  Now love is a choice to act as if you feel the magic, even when you don’t.

Love is a decision to put someone else’s needs before your own.  The only glow from long-term love is the sweat of hard labour.

I once showed a boy the well known Bible passage about Love:

“Love is patient, love is kind.

It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 

Love never fails.”  

(I Corinthians 13: 4-8)

He replied that this was unrealistic and gave me a Patience Strong card about love instead.  That was a near-miss.

He was right though.  It is too much to live up to but it is also what real love is.  It is being and doing all those things to those we love.  It is actions and decisions.  Actions and decisions that often fly against everything we feel like doing.

So while we will probably fail regularly, this is what I think we should strive to be like to those we love: our partners, children, family, friends.

As Cinderella says, looking towards the future, “We must see the world not as it is but as it could be.

And as the prince reminds her, he is “still an apprentice, learning [his] trade”.  Staying in love is behaving like the magic is there even when it is not, especially when it is not even.  It is also acknowledging that we are apprentices at love, as are those trying to love us.  We must be patient with ourselves and each other.

I hope that my daughter experiences the magical Disney moments of love that take her breath away.  But I hope she does not chase those feelings when they fade, jumping from one magical moment to the next without finding true love.  I hope she has courage to keep going when it is difficult.  I hope she chooses to be kind to whoever she promises to love – her future husband, her children, her siblings, her parents.  For there the real magic is found.

A Lesson from my Dad

I am thinking about parenting this Fathers Day and realising I can’t remember one thing my dad bought me growing up. (Actually that’s not true,  I remember him bringing home a digital watch for me when it wasn’t even my birthday and feeling very grown up but the birthday and Christmas presents are mostly forgotten.). What I do remember are the gifts he laboured over by hand (an electronic metronome, a set of stilts that every child in the street wanted a shot of).

I also remember the hours he spent driving me to clubs and band practices and taxiing my friends around whose families didn’t have cars.  It never occurred to me that he might have had something better to do. Now that I have children needing me to do something for them EVERY MINUTE  I think back to my dad’s quiet service and see it for what it was. It was putting my needs first and never commenting on it . I think he saw it as his job and in the same way as I would never say to someone I work with, “Do you see what a good job I’m doing? Do you know how long that took me to prepare?” (Admittedly , I want to sometimes.), he didn’t point it out to me.

I spend all day telling my children and husband how much I do for them , which on reflection, kind of spoils the gift.

Parenting is exhausting at times and it feels like we can never do enough,  be enough, (earn enough) to do it right. Today I am asking myself what my children will remember in 30 years and realising that it might not be whether they got to see the latest film when it was still new at the cinema (rather than waiting for the Kids AM showing) or that they didn’t have an iPad.  I think maybe they’ll remember my attitude to them. And actually,  that’s quite quite challenging.

Maybe it’s the quiet parenting,  serving needs that go unrecognised at the time, that matters most.

I’ll try to remember that today as I pick up another 20 toys discarded on the floor and load yet another pile of laundry into the machine. I’m not good at quiet service but I’m going to work on it today.

Thanks,  Dad, for the lesson.