How can we as parents help our kids to develop healthy use of social media and maintain their ability to establish “real” relationships face-to-face?
Good Life Family explores multiple sides of this distinctly contemporary issue.
By Alicia Wanek
Instagram. Twitter. Snapchat. Facebook. Chances are, you regularly interact with at least one or two of these social media platforms on a regular basis.Chances are, your teen is interacting with them A LOT.On average kids are spending 6 ½ hours per day looking at a screen, not including the time they’re using them to do schoolwork. Twenty-five percent of American teens admit to being connected to a device within five minutes of waking up.They are texting, posting, watching, blogging, messaging and hashtagging on social media all the time.
There’s no doubt social media offers a lot of benefits to adolescents at a time of life when establishing relationships, being connected, and figuring out your own identity is a part of development.But what about the downside?When teens are only seeing what others post online and are comparing their own lives to that reality, how does it make them feel about themselves?When kids can post hurtful or untrue messages online with little consequence, what are the ramifications long-term?
Recent Films Highlight How and Why SocialMedia has Become Sucha Part of Our Teens’Daily Lives
In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to screen two movies that focus exclusively on our teens and their lives online.Connect, a project with former teen heartthrob and father of six teenagers Kirk Cameron, focuses on the issue from the standpoint of his conservative Christian beliefs as he interviews a variety of parents, teens and experts.Screenagers, a 2016 film by physician Delaney Ruston also provides input from those who have examined social media in different contexts and the reaction kids have to “screen time” and how we as a society are addressing the issue.
As a parent of three teens myself, I found that both films offered some helpful insights:
The teenage brain makes them especially susceptible to the pitfalls of social media.(For additional information see the GLF article on the teen brain in our Jan/Feb issue).In Connect, neurosurgeon Dr. Ian Armstrong discusses how the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls impulsivity and reasoning, is not fully developed until the early 20’s.The teens’ attraction to the constant stimuli coming through their device is too much for the teen brain to have the self-control to resist.
Dr. Ruston in Screenagers explains how the brain is wired for “seeking behaviors.”The new friends, new information, new messages, and new contacts online cause a release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward.However, over time it takes more stimulation to get the same response.Their brains seek more of that response – much like any kind of addict.
Additionally, studies have shown that the brain is physiologically not capable of multi-tasking, so the time teens are spending online and on social media is time they’re not focusing on schoolwork, face-to-face relationships or other responsibilities.
We are learning social media skills alongside our kids.In Connect Mark Gregston says, “It’s as new to us as it is to our kids,” and Kathy Koch says, “We’re the guinea pig parents” or the “pioneer parents” for how to handle screen time and social media with our teens.As part of that, we need to consider how we use our own devices and model the interpersonal relationships we want our kids to have with others. The parent of a child in Connect who had a scary online encounter with an adult predator reminds parents, “You shape how [our kids] perceive and process through the lens of your priorities.”
Teens are influenced tremendously by what they see and read online.Both films interview teens who have learned lessons through negative experiences online and on social media.One teen girl who was bullied online and considered suicide said, “The words they give you are the ones you believe.”Author of Schoolgirls Peggy Orenstein, says girls especially are bombarded by images that define what it means to be attractive.She points to a study showing that girls who were shown images of other girls in bathing suits over sweaters performed significantly worse on math tests given after the exposure.In another study Dr. Nino Ramirez, director of the Center for Integrative Brain Research at Seattle Children’s Hospital, told of a study in which mice exposed to constant media took 2 to 3 times longer to complete a maze.Even after the exposure to media was suspended, their performance never improved.What will studies show about all that exposure to media on our kids?
There are things we can do as parents.Cameron reminds us, “We can’t run from technology.”We’ve got to figure out the balance between time in true interpersonal relationships and time on our devices.Koch says the most important thing we can do is “engage” with our children, being fully present during designated time together.Gregson says that it’s important to see it as training, not teaching, them how to use their technology responsibly.“If I make all their decisions, they’re not learning,” he says.He encourages discussions, not lectures, as you establish boundaries.In Screenagers, pediatrician Leslie Walker says, “Kids appreciate limits.”Taking away their phones to ensure they’re getting good sleep for example may be necessary.The term “digital citizenship” – at home, at work and at school – is a new concept we all need to understand.Even companies like Google and Facebook are showing how productivity is increased when employees have time designated to get off their phones.
In two hours, each of these movies could only scratch the surface in exploring all the ways technology, screen time and social media are impacting society today, especially in our teens, but it gets the conversation started.It’s a conversation that will go on for a long time…
If We’re More Connected Than Ever Before, Why Is Loneliness on the Rise?
In the wake of the suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, the nation is talking more about mental health and depression.These are medical conditions that require intervention, and thankfully the stigma is minimized when celebrities like Demi Lovato are discussing their struggles.Many of us can identify with the sense of isolation and loneliness at times.But how can we be lonely when we’re supposedly more “connected” than ever before?In England, they’ve even recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness.That’s how much of a concern it is.Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, says, “We are facing a loneliness epidemic.”
Use of social media may very well be one of the biggest contributors to this nationwide concern.Dr. Brian Primack, director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh, appeared on the Today show and reported that in a recent study he’s conducted the more time young adults use social media, the more likely they are to feel socially isolated – lacking fulfilling relationships and a sense of belonging.
Sierra Sanchez, Director of Outreach and Extension at the Grant Halliburton Foundation, speaks often to teens on this subject.She poses this scenario to them:Imagine sitting at a table with your closest friends but feeling like no one at the table really knows you.She says that inevitably a large number of teens raise their hand when asked if they can identify with that feeling.
“When it comes to social media, it can create instant gratification or instant humiliation,” Sierra says.Every post, every message can build up our teens or make them feel less-than.“There’s a constant barrage of what you want people to see.”She refers to it as “a platform of comparison.”When teens are looking at the posts from their peers, they “…don’t always see that it’s not real life and think ‘I’m the only one struggling.’”
What becomes important is talking to kids about the stressors in their lives and letting them know it’s OK to be vulnerable with people they trust.One of Sanchez’s favorite quotes is, “The projection of strength without vulnerability will always drive you into isolation and loneliness.”Hopefully, you can convince your teens they can trust you, their parents.Keep open lines of communication and talk about social media.Monitor what they’re posting and have discussions about being smart about the choices they make in what to post.College admissions offices are checking applicant’s social media posts, and whatever they post is accessible forever, even if they think it disappears after a short amount of time.
What we want to ensure is that our teens aren’t missing out on establishing real interpersonal relationships.Dr. Primack likes to compare the difference between real life interaction and social media conversations to the difference between eating an apple and eating Apple Jacks cereal.They both taste good, but the cereal is a poor substitute for the original.On a recent weekend fishing trip with my kids, we started telling a story that got so funny we all were laughing so hard we had tears in our eyes.Moments like that couldn’t be captured with an “LOL” and a laughing emoji – thank goodness.
Why are kids saying what they say onsocial media?
By Dr. Dean Beckloff | Contributor
On social media, our kids are saying and doing a great deal of things that boggle our minds as parents. They are saying things to each other – and to the world at large – that they would never say otherwise. And many of our kids have found a voice, and perhaps not such a positive one, in the world of social media. They are saying things that are nothing short of stunning, when in their ‘real’ world, we can hardly get a word out of them.
What’s going on?
We are looking at not fully developed kids, who are lacking in emotional maturity, social maturity and planning maturity – the ability to look at the consequences of their behavior. They have great language skills and facility, but communication in a social context requires more than just language ability.
They follow the crowd
They want to fit in, to be accepted by their peers. Sometimes desperately so. You mix that need with an immature brain, and we get a powder keg set up when we also have social media in the mix.
A feeling of anonymity
When you use social media, all the faculties that make up face-to-face, genuine communication are not employed. It somehow feels safer. Safer than the true and sometimes messy communication that takes place in genuine conversation – where someone might disagree with you and might take issue with you.
THE ART OF CONVERSATION
By Dr. Dean Beckloff | Contributor
I love getting together with Suzy. Suzy is fascinating, witty, intriguing. She just seems to have the gift that at times, seems not to be around as much – she has the fine art of conversation. How do we get that back, in this “brave new world” of newer and greater communication devices that bring us into a world that we would not have thought about twenty years earlier? And, what can we do to not lose this art? More importantly, how do we keep it around so that our kids are growing in it as well? Here’s a few points:
We’ve got to look at ourselves and decide if we are allowing our kids to see genuine two-way communication going on in our lives. Are we spending most of our time allowing our kids to see only one side of conversation because we ourselves are only speaking into a phone? Technology may be changing parent behavior. Are our children getting to see and hear adult conversation with genuine and real conversation?
Create a context
Perhaps social media has its place, but it is no place for real conversation. Find a way to be in a real conversation with your teen or tween. I remember feeling that there was no genuine conversation happening between my teenage daughter and me at one time. I found the context – Olive Garden. She liked the breadsticks and the salad! So, we began going, and we sat opposite each other. While she was munching, I was listening. And conversation began to happen. Our relationship was strengthened. Find a context where real communication can happen. This kind of communication is stimulating and fosters growth in the brain – growth in emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and the subtle art of knowing the consequences of your conversation.
Just like math facts, practice makes perfect. We live in a busy world, and that busy-ness may be stealing us from engaging with our teens. But if our teens are going to continue to grow, I need to find time to get with my teen at Olive Garden. And of course, the context does not have to be at a restaurant, and can simply be in your den, or your teen’s room, or out in the garage. But teens are not going to grow and develop in this necessary skill without practice. The parent must make and take time to help them to develop it.
If you cannot engage with your teen for any number of reasons, bring someone else into the picture. Find a “Suzy” to sit down with you and have your teen in the same place listening and perhaps even engaging with you. Ask a friend to sit down and just talk to your teen. Find a context with perhaps someone other than yourself to engage conversationally with your teen. Engagement, socially, in conversation is stimulating to your teen’s brain development. If we’re going to really deal with the problem of social media, we are each going to have to do our part to really engage with each other and learn how to relate. Conversation is a wonderful way to help our teens and tweens grow and develop. If they learn this art in our homes, perhaps they will be able to pass it on to their own children one day.
Tools for your Parent Toolbox When it Comes to Social Media
By Alicia Wanek
Recently author Ana Homayoun spoke in Dallas at two events, one through the Highland Park ISD Parent Education Committee and at the Grant Halliburton Foundation conference as the keynote speaker. Sierra Sanchez with Grant Halliburton Foundation says, “Parents, teachers and counselors want tools in their toolbox when it comes to how to handle social media, and she offers very practical suggestions.”
Homayoun’s book, Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World, focuses on three major tenets – socialization, self-regulation, and safety – and she feels strongly that parents need to help their children take ownership for their own use of social media. “The way we talk with tweens and teens has the most powerful impact on their ability to make proactive and prosocial decisions about their social media and technology use,” she says. She encourages parents to help their teens identify their values and think about whether the choices they’re making reflect those and if they are helping them to reach their personal or academic goals. Homayoun suggests “media agreements” with your teens and that parents themselves have agreements that spell out how they will be responsible for socializing within acceptable parameters; self-regulating what, when and how they will use social media; and what they will do to maintain social, emotional and physical safety online.