“So glad I didn’t have to deal with this when raising my children!” was a comment one mom posted on Facebook in response to an article in the New York Times on how social media has infiltrated our children’s world. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat, Kik…the list is endless. And once we, as parents, have even the tiniest grasp on one or two of these platforms, another Gen Z’er becomes a billionaire from the creation of the newest Claptrap, PeepingTeen, SnoopScoop, CheapChirps platform that allows us to be “social”. And the general viewpoint of most parents we work with? We believe that this social media is a distraction for their teen, drawing them out of the “real world” into pseudo friend groups that do not allow them to nurture true and lasting relationships. This complaint/worry is in addition to the basic idea that our kids are obsessed with their phones, drawn out of the family dynamic, separating themselves from shadowy, dreary family time to be warmed and comforted by the glow of the screen where their cyber relationships reside. And we haven’t even broached the subject of cyber bullying, comparison of their self-conscious teen selves to unrealistic media expectations, and of course, the ultimate betrayals of the digital experience, stalking, cyberporn and child endangerment.
Truly, Samuel F.B. Morse is to blame for all of these digital communication shenanigans. In 1825, Morse was working as a painter and was far from home when his wife became ill after the birth of their baby. Morse found out too late, and by the time he got home to be by her side, she was dead. Morse was so heartbroken, he went to Europe to grieve. On that trip, he met an inventor, Charles Thomas Jackson, and together they invented Morse Code, which led to the invention of the telegraph. Long distance communication was born, and the emotional death of our children through social media soon followed.
But, is it possible that this is just fear speaking? Is there a flicker of hope that maybe, just maybe, social media could be used for good and not powerful, life-altering evil? Well, we say yes, there is more than a flicker that this could be possible. In fact, we say that there is a raging fire of a possibility that this can be used by parents as a bridge to your child, a connection to their world, that otherwise you might have to fight for entrance into. Our teens, due to some organic chemical matter flourishing in their bodies out of control, have an innate sense of needing to become snails. Yes, I am talking about their slow-moving, trail-leaving, pouty-mouthed aura, but also, and more emotionally difficult for parents to accept, our teens may have a tendency to curl up into their shells and retreat while they are figuring out their world. This is natural and necessary; they realize they are their own person and want to figure things out from the inside out. It’s safe there in that shell. As they mature, they will slowly graduate to peeking their heads out of their safe zone, and then eventually, if all goes well, a full immersion into their adult world will occur.
So, we ask ourselves—how do we know what’s going on inside the minds of our kids? Is there an X-ray machine we can create to help us see inside their hard candy shell? Why, yes there is! Samuel Morse created it for us a century ago. It’s digital media! Now, let me be clear. I am not implying that direct communication and an intimate, safe relationship with our teenagers is not possible or necessary here. I will never believe that there is any substitute for a personal communicative relationship with our children, no matter what age. I am saying however, that instead of viewing social media as a devilish temptress that is luring our kids over to the Darth Side, we can embrace the culture we are in and go to where are children are residing, instead of alienating them by demanding they stay where we, the adults, are comfortable.
**Before continuing, I must make a note about Snapchat and Kik. These sites both erase content immediately after your child responds. In our family, these two sites were not an option until we felt confident that the maturity level of the child was present enough to manage us not checking their content frequently. We must make decisions about sites like these with a different set of parameters than the others. Obviously, kids can erase any content they choose , but if they are in that kind of sneaky space, they shouldn’t perhaps be on any social media, much less apps that do the sneaky work for them. We must just use wisdom and confidence in our own decision making in these cases.**
There are five major reasons why social media is a parent’s best friend:
1. You can identify the personality of your new, hormone-fueled teenager by evaluating how they use social media. Are they a Facelooker or are they a participator? Are they a joyful peruser or are they comparing their value to others? Are they a posting joyfully or are they drawing from negativity? From his or her side of the screen, it is possible to track your child’s actions or lack of action and put together puzzle pieces of how your child is feeling. What are the hashtags that he or she is searching? What ads pop up on the sides of your child’s Facebook page? These ads are a possible reflection of what your child is perusing. However, we mustn’t be fatalists as parents if a random ad pops up that make our stomachs flip. It isn’t a 100% accurate reflection. It just means we need to continually talk with our kids, and not from an accusatory place. We can bring it up in a very non-intrusive way that just tells our child we have interest by saying something like, “Oh my! I’m so bummed that popped up on your page! It’s so interesting how social media can try to influence our thoughts and purchases with their ad placement. Have you ever noticed this? What do you think?” It lets your child know you are aware, but doesn’t alienate them because they don’t think your coming with guns loaded to “catch them”. Is your child “lurking” in the shadows of someone on Instagram they are comparing themselves to? This may be a great bridge for you to walk over to help your child build some confidence in that area. Is your child searching birdwatchers? Perhaps they are expressing in a new love they haven’t told you about, or perhaps they are enjoying a specific birdwatching page because the person in the photo is super cute. Either way, this gives you insight through your child’s social media.
2. You can evaluate what type of people your child is naturally drawn to without them even knowing themselves. It is not uncommon for a teen to have thousands of pins or grams or tweets from people they have never met. Something a parent can do is find commonalities in the collection of media platforms. This is like a magnifying glass into the mind of your child. Look past the content to the person behind the content. This is where the true connection lies with your child. Humans are attracted to what other humans are doing. It’s not the thing, it’s the person doing the thing. And again, this is not to bust our kids. It’s to gain knowledge about what they value so we can know our children better. This provides engagement. There may be circumstances that require redirection, but primarily we just want to take every opportunity to know our kids.
3. You can be active in letting your child feel your presence in their digital lives. As much as our teens want freedom, they want love more. They may not act like it, but it is so. They will roll their eyes, they might slam a door a little too hard, but those actions are much more desirable for a parent than a kid who shows indifference because they don’t feel the connection. It makes them feel secure to know that we care enough to be present. It is possible to monitor our kids heavily without helicoptering. Social media actually helps us in this area. Here’s the plan: gather your kids’ social media passwords, and be honest. Tell them it is for their protection and that in your family there is open communication in all areas. It should also be a family habit that if passwords change, children let you know without you having to ask. It doesn’t need to be more difficult than that. If they refuse, then social media is not an option for them. And then the trick is that you consistently check their social media. But you do it quietly without making a big deal about every post. Our kids don’t want to have discussions about their posts over mac and cheese at dinner, even if you just think they’re adorbs. Let them have their space. And definitely, we mustn’t infiltrate by responding or commenting on all of their posts. Occasionally is great so they feel our presence, but they aren’t posting to hear from their parents constantly. Finally, the less we remind our kids that we are monitoring, the more honest and true their posts and searches will be, allowing us to see what we need to in order to truly understand where they are coming from.
4. You can use it as a tool for discussion, conversation, and growth. Blogs, discussions about mistakes they make on social media are communication tools, too. Though it feels like social media is a communication device that pulls our kids away from us, it can be a constant and continual device for drawing them closer communicatively. Talking, talking, and more talking about social issues, not just within their “friends” circle, but also about posts politically, environmentally, socially, etc. are at our fingertips for intellectual conversation and understanding of our teens. If you see something on social media that his a hot topic in our world, or even just a little chirp about an ideology that catches your interest, make a note on your phone and bring it up over hot chocolate or dinner and talk it out. Social media is a great platform to dive into conversations that will help our kids decide how they feel and what they think about life topics. We must, however, not try to direct their thoughts toward our own ways. We must let them communicate and share how they feel so they feel valued and respected for their own opinions. On moral issues, we can share how we feel, but we must let our children come to their own decisions. We must let them make mistakes while they are in our homes where we can help them recover. They will not blindly follow our lead at this age. In fact, they might just explore the opposite of what we enforce simply because that’s where they are at in the process of becoming an independent adult. We can guide and give markers, and they will swerve in and out until they find they path that they feel is right for their adult behaviors. Additionally, add humor as a connection! My husband posts the most hilarious snaps to our kids; snaps that would be so embarrassing if their friends could see, but it makes our kids burst out laughing every time! And more than once, they’ve received a snap of their Papa’s bald head with blue hair drawn into the bald spot. Dumb? Yes! Pointless? In the world of snaps, yes. But in the world of connectivity, far from pointless.
5. You can be a model of maturity. Time and time again I will log into social media and see a parent sharing information about their child that is either embarrassing for the kid or humiliating for them. We don’t air our child’s flaws for the world. In fact, not one post or photo should go up that represents our children without their explicit permission. We show respect, and we will get respect. What we think is the cutest photo of our kid laying on the couch in their pajamas eating a bag of chips could be the death of him or her at school where kids are often brutal. Modeling respect and responsibility and maturity to our kids through social media is a big lesson that we can provide without lecturing or even breathing a word to them. Our actions speak volumes. We can’t harp on their social media practices if our own are not stellar.
There is no denying that some children should not and cannot handle social media. Our children should feel our presence and our decision-making based on their proven success as a social media participant. We should not just declare these platforms as bad because it takes more work on our part to monitor. Additionally, we, as adults, often decide that something that is different than how it was for us is bad. Not so, necessarily. Sometimes we need to grow as much as our children. We need to travel this road alongside our kids as aids for their physical, social, and emotional growth. That’s our job. And if we embrace their like and dislikes respectfully, the journey can be pretty fun!