Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Blog Manager, Ainsley Johnson, offers advice to overwhelmed parents looking to start conversations with their teens about social media. From the perspective of a teenager, who is no less privy to the world of digital connectivity than any other teenager in today's world, Ainsley gives valuable insight into the effect social media can have on our generation, and how to combat it.
There exists, in the mind of virtually every preteen and every teenager, the desire to fit in. When it comes to social media, it’s not only a suggestion, it’s a necessity. The constant connection offered by smartphones is unlike anything that has previously existed. Google, Instagram, and email software have forced their way into nearly every facet of our lives. As teenagers, it is our responsibility to remain connected, or rather, tethered, to our devices.
Smartphones are a means of freedom. We have never had as much personal choice, or as much of an exercise of free will, as teenagers have now. It all begins that single Christmas, or birthday, or Bat Mitzvah, or any other celebration, where a small, heavy box, wrapped in crinkly wrapping paper, is sitting, waiting to be found. When we pick up the box, there is almost an understanding that it is just the right time to recieve such a gift. What else is so needed, so desired, in our lives? Opening the box is cathartic. Suddenly, as we program our fingerprint identification and text our best friend for the first time to let her know that yes, we have one too, we receive a whole new world.
For, there exists in the confines of the small box you hold, a key, of some sort. It carries influence. It connects us to the memes, posts, videos, and ideas that we didn’t have access to before. The content that we see as we are scrolling through the explore page is determined by our tastes, handpicked so as to offer us the best experience. Suddenly, we can text someone, just to say hello. With this, we can post, and we can bear witness to the rose-tinted lives of those around us. Social media is aptly named. With this small device, heavy in our hands, we become lighter. With this access, we have influence.
However, the feelings of relief, and of excitement, fade as quickly as the deflated balloons and streamers are swept away, and the birthday cake in the fridge grows smaller before disappearing. The attachment, as our new toy grows old, remains as strong as it did on the first day, when we were focused on nothing but the experience. Soon, you’ll find us, splayed across the couch, phone in hand, every afternoon. Your reminders to put the phone away during dinner will go unheeded, as if unheard. Conversing with your teenager will be like speaking to a brick wall. No matter what you say, to the teenager, the phone is addicting. It is all-consuming.
Starting a conversation about digital wellness and social media may feel like a daunting task. If I’m honest, it likely won’t be easy. However, it doesn’t mean that you should stand by and watch your teenager slink further and further into their small, digital world, creeping farther out of yours. Here are some things you can try.
Teenagers loathe being told what to do. Approaching them and immediately setting limits on their screen time will only make them more determined to prove you wrong, and to disobey. Remember, social media is addicting, but often, teenagers are not aware of the hold it has on their lives. They may feel like you are overprotective, or are blowing things out of proportion, and they will become defensive.
Instead, go a different route. Proposing alternative activities is a great way to get them off the couch, and often, it can make them realize just how much they rely on their phones. When my phone is dead, I find myself reaching into my pocket constantly, as if the desire to scroll through social media is stronger than my will to remember what I do not want to hear. Let them know that you want what’s best for them, but be sure to make the conversation a collaborative effort. Though they may resist your suggestions, you need to let them know that you value their input and respect their decisions.
Educate them on the risks and dangers of social media reliance. As a family, watch documentaries like The Social Dilemma to get the ball rolling. Do some research, and find apps, social media pages, and other resources that can make their phone a healthier place to be. Encourage them to leave their phone at home when you go out. Have regular game nights or movie nights as a family, which will encourage your teen to spend more time away from Instagram.
Offer alternative (yet social-distanced) methods of connectivity. Though letting them hang out with their friends may be unsafe right now, encourage them to facetime instead of texting or DMing, as it is as close to normal as one can get, and can help to remind them that there are people out there who care about them and want to speak with them face-to-face. In addition to this, one could drop off notes on the other’s porch, or send letters in the mail, which can prove to be a fun and safe activity.
Keep them busy. When they have a free moment they’d usually spend on the couch, suggest playing basketball in the backyard, running around the block, playing board games, or anything of the sort. Offer to do it with them, which will help to set an example.
Ultimately, teenagers often feel that adults lie just outside of the boundary of their world, looking in as if it was bordered with glass windows, but never truly understanding. We live in a world so digitally-based, where progress is marked by replacing landlines with touch-screens, and bulky monitors with laptops. Very few things seem to be out of the reach of this wave of advancement, and though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can often make one feel as though the bounds of technology are ever-increasing and inescapable.
Today’s teenagers, much like the teens of the past, may feel as though they are misunderstood, now more than ever. Bridging the gap between their online lives and their real, tangible ones, can help them to see the value of the experiences they can share outside of their screens, and encourage them to be mindful of their consumption of social media. Ultimately, caring about them means that you respect them enough to allow them to come to their own conclusions, and make their own mistakes, but that you bolster them with the resources and the knowledge they need to never feel like they are alone in their decisions.
Social media, through the promise of connectivity and influence, isolates us on the basis of follower counts and engagement statistics, while lifting others up through the algorithm. That first smartphone may feel like a key to unlocking a world unseen, but one of immense influence. As parents, be sure to remind your teens that Instagram isn’t otherworldly, but rather, an intense and enhanced facet of our own, and as such, is riddled with insecurity and discontentment, in a neat, tidy bow. When you spend your free moments watching edited moments of other people’s lives, it may encourage you to change, but it shouldn’t. Even those most popular on social media’s various platforms are not oblivious to real, human experiences--ones of boredom, of self-doubt, of vulnerability, of anxiety, of sadness, and of struggle. Never stop reminding our generation that they are not alone.
Orlowski, Jeff. (2020). "The Social Dilemma". Netflix Original Documentary. Exposure Labs.