It is no surprise to anyone that parents are increasingly concerned about the pervasive impact social media has on their children’s lives. Especially parents of teenagers. Yawn. We all know that. We see our children with their faces down, staring at their cell phones, iPads, iPods, etc. We discuss this problem with our friends when we are out to dinner, our cell phones prominently displayed on the table. We talk about limits. We talk about how social media is invading our lives. And we know it’s true because we have heard it from Facebook or Google with our very own various media devices.
Of course, we tell ourselves that we don’t have the problem our kids have. We are LinkedIn and Pinterested in things and we may even Twitter a bit. Yes, we are on our phones but not like our children are. We remind ourselves that we are not tied to our devices – they are used for work, we proclaim. Social media is not our whole world. We are different than they are – we have jobs to go to and food shopping and laundry to do and dining out to enjoy and lives to lead. Other activities occupy our time. We don’t take selfies to show everyone what we look like every hour of the day. We shudder at the very thought.
It is not our involvement but our children’s complete involvement to their social media that bothers us. Because at a basic level, we don’t know what our kids are doing and saying when they are glued to their devices. Do we Snapchat or FaceTime? Do we Instagram? Do we KIK each other? Probably not and definitely not to the extent they do. (At least, that is what we believe.) We want to know what is going on with our children. But we are excluded. We don’t understand and we don’t like that. It’s quite different from the way we grew up. They should be talking, exercising and riding bikes. They should do what we did. Not what we are doing – what we did. When there weren’t cell phones, internet, Wifi. When there weren’t even answering machines!
A few months ago, I mentioned to my 25-year old cousin Kathryn that I didn’t understand my daughter’s reaction to a punishment I devised. (My daughter is in the 8th grade.) I had suggested to my daughter that I would take her phone away for at least an hour when I didn’t like her behavior. I was concerned about her reaction – she was beyond upset with this and begged me not to do that. Begged, pleaded, and cried. It was as if I had suggested shaving her head or even worse, hugging her in public in front of her friends. She was that distraught.
I didn’t get it. “Just one hour”, I explained to my cousin, in stark disbelief. Kathryn gave me a look that said strongly “This is the most absurd suggestion I ever heard. I can’t believe you are part of my family.” But she is kind and didn’t say that. Instead, she said “The phone is her whole world. Everything that she cares about is on that phone.”
Ok. Yeah. I do see that.
So, along the lines of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” I decided to see what was going on in my daughter’s world. One day, a few months ago, my daughter and her friends had created an Instagram account for me. They did it as a joke but I decided to embrace the media. I would use IG – the “gram.” I would post. I would see what was going on around me. And with her.
I set about getting some online friends. My daughter’s friends were willing to accept me as IG friends although my daughter was a bit reluctant. To her, I am the most embarrassing person alive. Thankfully, to her friends, I am not. (I am sure that distinction is reserved for their own parents.) Her friends seem to be able (or willing) to talk to me and tell me things where she does not.
I only had 15 friends (an utter embarrassment, I know) but I didn’t care. This was about learning and understanding. I posted funny pictures. I posted pithy sayings. “Home is where your Wi-Fi connects automatically.” “Do not trust atoms – they make up everything.” When I couldn’t contact my daughter I posted a graphic “Call me” and got an immediate response. While my daughter wasn’t always amused with my wit – she always responded with a “Like” as did her friends. I felt connected. One evening, when several girls were sleeping over, I posted on Instagram that they should move the mattress to get ready for bed. Immediate response. The girls were very tuned in! Communication!
So I started to feel like I knew what was going on. Somewhat. I didn’t know everything because I wasn’t connected to all media – Snapchat or Twitter. But I was able to get a feel for when something wasn’t right by checking the news stream.
And in a few months, I was up to 100 posts on Instagram and even enjoyed finding funny things to post. My daughter thought it was weird but tolerated it. But social media is a slippery slope. On Halloween, my daughter and a group of friends went out in a big group. They were all sleeping over one of the girl’s houses and I didn’t see her after she left for school on Friday morning.
Now, I know Halloween is fun. And dressing up with a group of friends is even better. Knowing there would be lots of great photos posted, I was looking forward to seeing all the costumes. Gone were the days of trick or treating around the neighborhood with her and I missed it.
But, no. Not one photo did I find online. Not one text. I found myself checking Instagram frequently to see how the night was progressing. My friend’s daughter, who was with her own group of friends, had posted lots of funny pictures. Nothing from my daughter. I was a bit worried.
However, when I saw my daughter the next day, she said Halloween was great fun and it went by so quickly. There were no pictures posted because she and her friends weren’t on their phones. And I realized that this little experiment had turned me into the very thing I feared most – someone obsessed with social media, trying to discover information about other people. Social media had come full circle in our household.
What I learned from this experiment is that none of us are immune to the seduction of the online world. What is attractive to our children is also enticing to us. The feeling of connection (real or imagined), the anonymity of the medium (which allows us to respond without much thought or insecurity) and the absolute way that that social media can draw you in is quite daunting.
I also realized that I do not have all of the answers for my daughter. In some cases, the medium works for kids. They are able to express things that they may not be able to in person. If this is all they can do, it may not be a good thing. But if this helps them start a conversation it might be an opening to communication with which they may not otherwise feel comfortable. It has some positive benefits, which I didn’t realize before this “experiment.” And some negative ones, of course.
But what I learned absolutely is that this is a new world and we must forge it together. We are in it together.