Teenagers & Social Media: Help for Parents

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Words by
Meg Meeker, MD

Published on

08.03.2021

Today I have teamed up with my good friend and colleague, Dr. Joshua Straub, author of Safe House: How Emotional Safety Is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well to talk about some of the most startling findings he has discovered in his research about teenagers and social media.

But before we dive into his research, it’s important to note that we are not against social media; we are for screen-balanced homes. We have found that families can greatly benefit from setting parameters and guidelines around technology use in order to create and maintain happy, balanced homes.

How Social Media Can Negatively Affect Teenagers

Self-Centeredness

One of the main ways that Josh sees social media affecting our teenagers today is by making them more self-centered.

He says, “If you think of the very nature of setting up a social media profile, one of the central purposes is to create followers who follow us. The entire experience revolves around self.”

He goes on to explain, “A lot of teenagers take time doctoring up their images to make themselves look good—more glamorous than they really might be—and then they wait for the right times to post their pictures so that they can get the most likes and comments. It is very self-centered.”

Apathy

“93% of communication is non-verbal,” says Josh. 

“Tone of voice, facial expressions, body language—there are all of these other ways of communicating that help us in learning how to relate and how to have empathy with other people that is totally missing when our teenagers are living online, more than having face-to-face interactions.”

“Studies show that face-to-face interactions are critical for brain growth in the parts of the brain that help us develop empathy and self-control.”

Superficiality

Josh continues, “If you think about the word muse, it means ‘to think deeply.’ If you put an ‘a’ in front of the word, it negates the definition. Social media platforms themselves are designed to amuse which means that they are not encouraging our teenagers to think deeply. Not only does this cause them to become less empathetic, but it also causes them to become more superficial.”

“It’s not that our teenagers are superficial, but when their entire identity revolves around social media, their relationships are more about breadth (having lots of followers) than they are about depth (having deep, emotional connection with others).”

Inauthenticity

“In social media postings, research shows that boys tend to present themselves as more ‘macho’ and girls tend to present themselves in one of two ways: (1) girls who see themselves as smart or kind outside of social media will tend to present themselves as being more funny and care-free on social media and (2) girls who have a low self-esteem will tend to present themselves to look more ‘sexy’ or ‘beautiful.’ Either way, teenagers are often presenting themselves as someone that they’re really not.”

Not only is Josh finding that teenagers often portray their own identity inauthentically, but sometimes they are even taking on identities completely separate from their own. 

He says, “Many times teenagers don’t want their parents to see what they’re doing on social media so they will either create profiles on social media platforms that their parents aren’t using and/or they’ll create profiles without their name and likeness attached to it (using different usernames and/or profile pictures) so that they can be more anonymous.”

How to Create a More Screen-Balanced Home

Start Empathy-Filled Conversations Early

Josh says, “I think [creating a more screen-balanced home] all begins with a conversation—not a ‘talk’—it’s a conversation. If you don’t talk with your kids as toddlers, you can’t expect them to talk with you as teenagers.”

But not just any type of conversation, we should strive to have empathy-filled conversations with our children.

As a psychologist, Josh has worked with parents struggling with teenagers—even straight-A, solid students— who physically attack their parents because the parents tried to set limits around screens.

Of this, Josh says, “Truth without grace is received as condemnation. If we try to set limits without having any understanding of why our kids use their screens, we’re going to get backlash. I think it’s really critical that we as parents lead with grace and empathy. When we set the tone for the conversation, it influences our kids to want to come to us with their technology issues, as opposed to us just bringing the hammer down all of the time.”

Wait to Give Your Teenager a Smartphone

When asked what the appropriate age is to give a teenager a smartphone, Josh said, “That’s based on maturity. I think it’s the same conversation that you have about dating. Bill Gates didn’t allow his daughters to have a cell phone until they were 13 and, when they did, they were only allowed to use it as a cell phone—no internet and no data.”

He went on to say, “If you give a 14-year-old boy unlimited internet access on a smartphone, he’s looking at pornography. No questions asked. I’m hoping by the time my kids turn that age, there are even better filtering programs out there. Every parent needs to do their research on that. I would start with the internet service provider (ISP). Your internet service provider and your cell phone company can help you.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Take Charge

Many times parents feel overwhelmed with screens. They may not understand the effect that screens have on their kids. Let’s be honest, sometimes we don’t. This hyper-tech world is a new dilemma for the modern parent. Screens came into our lives fast and furiously. Things are constantly changing.

You probably grew up talking; your kids are growing up texting. You went out to the park to play with your friends, you went on bike rides, maybe you went to a movie or two; now your kids’ friends are talking to each other through Snapchat and they’re texting. They rarely have face-to-face conversations. They live in a private world and that concerns you, and it should. But remember that you are in charge of the screens in your home, screens are not in charge of you, and your kids are not in charge of their screens. You are in charge of those things. You need to be the one to set the rules. You need to not be afraid. 

Josh has outlined a lot of the negative effects of social media on teenagers, but remember, we should never parent out of fear. You are in charge. It doesn’t mean that you have to be a monster, overly authoritative, mean, or demanding; but you must be strong because screens will have an impact on your kids. They will have an impact on their emotions, their communication skills, their relationships, and their self-perception.

You need to control the influence that screens have on your kids. You hold all the cards, the screens don’t. Don’t be afraid to take charge in your home.

Set Rules for the Family

One of the best things that you can do to avoid arguments with each of your children is to set family rules. Set some basic guidelines.

It’s really unrealistic to get rid of all screens. You can get rid of your TV; that’s not hard and it can be wise to do, but most kids have iPads and laptops that they use at school. You’ve got to have some very firm rules around them.

No Electronics in Bedrooms

I think it’s important to have a rule that kids should not be using laptops alone in their bedrooms. Particularly if you have a 13-year-old boy. You may say, “Well, I have a straight-A student and he’s so good that he would never look at pornography.” It’s not a matter of that—it will find him. When you allow your child alone time with a laptop or a cell phone or an iPad or the internet, alone in his/her room, trouble will find your child. You’re throwing far too much temptation into your child’s lap and your child can’t handle it so you need to handle it for them.

Screen-Free Times

You also need to set rules for the family about how much time you’re going to take off of the screen. I think it’s a good rule that every other night or every night or a couple of times a week that you have screen-free times in your home. 

Maybe every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday night after 7:00 pm everyone puts their cell phone up, everybody turns their laptop off, everyone shuts down the iPad, and you talk. Can you imagine? You talk. You interact. You do activities together. You go for a bike ride, you do crafts with your little kids, you read a book. 

I will tell you something, when you implement these rules, it’s going to be hard at first. It’s going to be uncomfortable. 

Many years ago when our kids were young, my husband and I decided that after school was out for the months of June, July, and August, we were not going to allow the television to be turned on. That was a big deal back then-we didn’t have computers, didn’t have cell phones, iPads, all of that. 

I will tell you, the first two weeks of summer were miserable. Why? Because everybody in our family was used to the distraction and the noise. The noise took our concentration off of each other. Off of conversation. Off of doing things together. It sort of occupied some space in our minds. It took some energy if you will. 

When you shut that down, there is some silence, there is this pause time, there’s this space opened up in your home and nobody knows what to do with it. So when you open up this space for your kids, what do they automatically do? They fight, and they argue, and they wrestle, but when they get past that and they get used to having this quiet, open downtime, guess what we found happens summer after summer? The kids begin to get along better. They go outside and play. They play games. They talk. They invite friends over. 

By the end of the summer, we say, “Okay, we can turn the television back on” and nobody is interested in television anymore. You create a habit for your kids. A diet of screens. If they are used to a restricted diet of electronics, just like with food, they learn to adapt and they learn to enjoy not having a lot of junk food or “junk screens” in their life because it feels better. It takes more discipline, but ultimately it feels better.

No Secrets

When you give your kids a cell phone or other electronics, I think it’s important to tell your kids that these are family instruments. This is not the child’s phone, it’s the family’s phone (because it really is). You’re paying the bills. You have full access to the conversation, the texts, or anything that transpires on the phone. There are no secrets. Secrets get everybody into trouble. When you begin to hide things-and it’s easy to hide with screens-that’s when relationships begin to break down. Make sure there are no secrets.

Abide By Your Own Rules

This is very important for moms and dads. Whatever rules you set for your kids, for the family, you need to abide. I can’t tell you how many letters I get from mothers or fathers telling me that their husband or wife won’t get off their cell phone, won’t get off their computer, ignores their child, and it’s having a bad effect on their children.

We can become addicted to screens just like our kids can. More and more of my friends sit with me at the dinner table and text, or answer calls from their friends or their kids. Really, it’s kind of an insult, isn’t it? What they are saying is that my time out with them doesn’t really matter, that they’d rather be talking to someone who is somewhere else; no matter how trivial the conversation. It is very important for parents to check their own behavior and model responsible and healthy screen use in their own homes. 

Some of us are hooked on our phones. If you are, face this fact and deal with it. You need to teach your kids how to be disciplined with their own screens. In other words, you lead. Don’t let your kids lead. You lead on how to live with screens responsibly and carefully and respectfully. Don’t be in front of your screen at the expense of other people, making them feel unacknowledged. It’s very important. 

Remember, your kids need and want face-to-face time with you. The best way you can meet the needs of your kids is to pull yourself away from your screens. If you’re not willing to put up your cell phone and shut down your computer, how can you expect your kids to do the same thing? Your kids are going to follow your example. It’s important that you pay attention to the example you are setting in your home.

Conclusion

Don’t be afraid to take charge of electronics in your home. Never approach it with fear. Recognize that electronics can have a very bad effect on your kids, as Dr. Straub outlined. Respond without fear and take charge.

Set rules for your family and make them apply to everyone. No secrets. There should be electronic-free times for everyone in the family. Show your kids that you are disciplined.

As head of the family-Mom and Dad-make sure to abide by the rules yourselves. Model good electronic use and behavior. Be responsible. Make sure that everybody understands that electronic discipline is a family issue, not just a kid issue. Show your kids how to protect themselves from any bad influences that the internet can have in their lives. You can do this.

Meg Meeker, MD

Pediatrician and Founder at MeekerParenting

Meg Meeker, MD has spent more than thirty years writing, teaching, speaking and working as a practicing pediatrician. Her life’s work has been about equipping parents and children with the tools necessary for health and happiness. After writing six books and speaking to thousands of families of all shapes and sizes, her goal has never changed—to help strong parents build strong children for a brighter future.

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