Social Media And Our Kids: When The Pros Outweigh The Cons
I admit to being more low-tech than most of my peers. There is no television in my living room. No iPad in my purse. No GPS in my ancient Volvo. Of course, I still use my Mac laptop for work and check Facebook on my phone, but on the technology spectrum, I lean more toward Amish Girl than Apple Genius. I’m also the type of parent who believes that long walks around the neighborhood and bike rides to the lake are a thousand times better than sitting around staring at a screen. So when my daughter came to me this summer, clutching her dad’s old iPhone, begging for an Instagram account, I reacted without thinking.
“No. Huh uh. Forget it. No Instagram,” I told her.
“What? Why not?! All of my friends have it and I can use it to post photos that I take on our trip back East and to talk to my friends in England,” she argued.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea. Maybe next year.”
“I just wanted to post pictures of the puppy,” she said in a sad voice designed to win over my cold, Luddite-loving heart. The puppy, by the way, was supposed to distract her from the world of social media not lead her into it. Darn gateway puppy.
In my head, I imagined an online world full of mean girls, ready to tease my daughter mercilessly for posting puppy pictures instead of come-hither selfies. I recalled that, just last year, a local middle school made national news for a brutal, Instagram-related case of bullying. I considered the arguments against blending social media and middle school: The reports of “Facebook depression” amongst our nation’s teens; the theory that social media has created a generation of self-absorbed young people who think everything revolves around them and their tedious, minute-by-minute moves through life; the argument that kids raised on social media have abysmal face-to-face communication skills; and the fact that staring at a screen has a direct link to our nation’s obesity crisis.
To be honest, my “no Instagram” rule seemed like a no-brainer to me. But the more I thought about it, the worse I felt for shutting down my daughter’s request without at least considering the other side of the story. So I started to read about the benefits of social media. I talked to other parents. I talked to other middle school kids. And I remembered how much my daughter loved photography. Instagram, which is more popular than Facebook with the tween and teen crowd, is all about photography. There were National Geographic photographers on Instagram. Why shouldn’t my kid show off her camera skills and gain some confidence?
The more I learned, the faster my resolve melted. There were reports that selfies the staple of the social media world boost teens’ confidence levels. One study showed that kids who blogged and used social media sites reported increased confidence in their writing abilities. Some teens are using social media to raise money for nonprofits and organize community volunteers for charitable causes. But what really won me over was a report from the child advocacy group Common Sense Media, which said the majority of teens report that social media has made them more outgoing and confident in the friend-making abilities. My daughter can be shy around new people and sometimes has trouble making new friends. If having an Instagram account could help her form better social networking skills, then I was all for it.
In the end, I said yes to the Instagram account. There were rules, of course she would keep it set to the highest privacy level, her dad and I had access and final say on “followers,” and there was a 30-minutes-per-day time limit.
It’s been two months since she got the account and here’s what I’ve realized:
• Social media can tear down stubborn clique walls
After a few weeks of monitoring my daughter’s account, I noticed that she had received a bunch of “likes” from a few of the popular, athletic kids at her school kids she has grown up with, but rarely talks to. She has always identified herself as “artsy and awkward” and that crowd of kids as “the populars.” But, on Instagram, the divisions weren’t so clear-cut. When I asked her about it, she was nonchalant. “Oh, yeah, they’re nicer than I thought. And they want to meet the puppy.”
Of course they do. She’s a gateway puppy.
• Social media can help your child navigate sticky social situations
I don’t stalk my daughter on Instagram, but I do check in at least once a week to monitor her site. True to her word, she has posted dozens of puppy pictures. But there are also a couple of rather artistic selfies that give me a glimpse of the beautiful woman she’ll become. Under one such selfie, a boy from her school had bombarded her account with a repeated question: “Who do you like?” He wrote it over and over and over again, until I wondered if I’d have to call his parents and have an intervention. I waited to see what my daughter would do, fearing that she would put her heart out there for everyone to see. She wrote back a few days later: “We haven’t had a real conversation since second grade, so I don’t feel comfortable sharing something so personal with you. Please stop asking me who I like.” My heart expanded about five times. Here was recorded proof that my daughter was growing into an articulate, thoughtful and confident young woman. I am still riding the parental pride high from that brief exchange of words.
• Social media doesn’t have to be such an overwhelming force
Last week, my daughter and I walked our dogs to the top of an extinct volcano in our neighborhood. The sky was robin’s egg blue. The view was impeccable. And there were no less than a dozen people up on top of this volcano with us all of whom were staring at their phones! It reminded me of a funny quote I saw recently: “Dance like no one is watching. Because they’re not. They’re staring at their phones.”
Social media is fun, but, as evidenced on top of that volcano, it can be completely addictive. We can’t let ourselves or our children get obsessed with it. Set boundaries. And if they cross those boundaries, have real consequences. Last week I discovered that my daughter had against my explicit instructions taken her phone to summer camp. I confiscated the phone and cut off screen time for three days. Instead of staring at the computer or her phone, she could read a book, draw, paint, clean, garden or stare into space. At the end of the three days, she didn’t even ask about the phone. In fact, she may have forgotten about it for another three days if her dad hadn’t gone on a business trip and requested her presence on Facetime. The point is: social media doesn’t have to be such an overwhelming force in our kids’ lives. With limits, it can be a fun tool that boosts their confidence, helps hone their photography skills and connects them with their community.
To learn more about setting limits and being an active participant in your child’s social media world, check out these sites: