Is Your Child Ready for Social Media?

“If you want to be on social media, you have to be ready to handle both the joy and the pain.”

15-year-old Reese Nilsen talking to his 12-year-old sister

Upon seeing the book, Right Click: Parenting Your Teenager in a Digital World (great book, by the way!) sitting on the kitchen counter:

“Mom didn’t experience social media growing up so she has to read a book about how to parent us.” 

— Same kid

Listen, I post stuff on social media ALL THE TIME. I’m a major offender of wasting time or promoting myself or connecting with others. However you spin it, I am on it. Instagram. Twitter. Even and especially Facebook. (Apparently FB is only for us old-timers over the age of 35. Periscope and Snap Chat still allude me, but then again, I’m over 35.)

Over the course of time, in my very unscientific, personal research, I’ve come to the realization that certain topics garner various amounts of “likes” or hearts or whatever the symbol is for “Don’t worry, girl. I see you and I’m giving you a virtual fist bump.”

Depending on what you post, you may experience a dip or a spike in “likes.” For instance, cute pics of kids doing funny things, graduations, proms or anniversaries. Easy money. Lots of likes. Photos of what you made for dinner. Meh. A few loyal souls may throw you a bone. Posts with political or religious quotes? Forget about it. Only the very bold attach their names to such things. 

There is one topic, however, that BLEW UP my Facebook feed recently and it went a little something like this:

Let me just say, y’all did NOT stay silent on that.

Dozens of you said virtually the exact same thing, “HOLD FAST. Don't cave.” Several of you said your kids can’t have smart phones until 8th grade or even high school. Only ONE person said to go ahead and get her one — with expectations and rules to go with it of course. 

So my question is this — If so many people (at least the ones I’m friends with on FB) said to wait, is that what they are actually doing with their kids or are folks in the "wait" camp just the most vocal**? I didn’t see any people (save one or two) whose kids under thirteen do have smart phones jump on in defense of that decision. One person even said their kids have to be sixteen before getting a phone. I commend you -- that is some serious resolve! (**Of course, lots of you talked about the cost. I'm not even going to dive into that today because that's another post and then some!!)

While we haven’t activated a smart phone for her just because she came home in tears (my old one is literally sitting, inactive in our home office), it has sparked a TON of really good conversation and processing about smart phones and social media.

(Caveat: Before I go any further, I need to say I do not hate social media. I actually really like it for many reasons. I also do not hate technology. I love smart phones and apps and things that enhance our lives. I'm not bashing any of this, I'm simply trying to process how and when and the like.) 

This may not be the blog post you want, but it's the one that needs to come out of me so here goes...

1.  I know there are kids around the world who don’t have clean drinking water or a roof over their heads. Believe me, I know. My kids have all they could need and more. I realize we are talking about a serious luxury item, but it’s still damned hard to see your kids crying when they feel left out. And these days, if you don’t have a smart phone in your back pocket, ready to pull out at the first hint of boredom (to include, but not limited to, carpools, the school cafeteria, hanging out on the couch, waiting for your ride, while watching TV, virtually everywhere) you're likely to feel left out because it seems EVERYONE ELSE is looking at their phones, watching videos, taking selfies, playing games, texting emojis and you’re just not. You have nothing in your hand which leaves you staring off into space wondering what everyone thinks is so funny.

2.  I learned a lot about what teens like by reading this article. Of the 60 teens they interviewed, most got their first smartphone at age 11. So, those of you that commented on my FB post, whose pre-teens or teens don't have smart phones, are actually in the minority. If you are a 12-year-old in the United States of America, chances are you and most of your friends have smart phones. But handing kids smart phones at such a young age, while extremely handy and functional, is a lot like giving candy to a baby. The more they taste, the more they want. 

3.  And, honestly, I GET IT!! I am 42-years-old and I can hardly go 5 minutes without wanting to pick up my phone and “check” email, Facebook, texts, etc. Why?? Because I’m bored, it’s a habit, what if I miss something important and potentially -- because I’m addicted. In fact, this is exactly what I’m giving up for Lent. No, I’m not ditching social media entirely. Mostly because I know that I can’t sustain that for longer than 40 days. I’m actually hoping to replace my bad habit of picking up my phone first thing in the morning and checking it right before I go to bed. I want to give God the first and last moments of my day. Of course I want to give him my whole life. Yes. But I’m realizing I’m not really giving Him my “first fruits” -- the best, most intimate parts of me. I want to fill the beginning and end of my day with Him. Not everyone else. I’m committing to not look at my phone for the first and last hour of my day. His word before the world's word. Might seem pitiful to some, but I’m guessing I’m not the only one who may find this to be a problem. Who hasn’t spent lingered longer in the bathroom scrolling through Facebook? Come on, now.

4.  Back to the quote at the top of the page. I was blown away by this simple, yet sophisticated advice from my oldest to his younger sister when she asked when she might be able to have an Instagram account. Social media (a.k.a. 24/7 connection) can be extremely fun and a great way for people to connect, but the two-headed dragon can also open Pandora’s box. In an effort to flesh this out for her, Reese said to Brynn, “How would you feel if you are scrolling through Instagram and you see your friends posting selfies from the movie theater and you weren’t invited?” She gave a silent nod, knowing exactly what he meant. And that’s just a common, run of the mill example. There is a 100% chance something like this WILL happen. That doesn’t even account for any signs of bullying or inappropriate activity that is bound to rear its ugly head. It’s as simple as that. Is your child ready to handle both the joy and the pain (and I would add, increasingly adult content) of social media?

5.  Perhaps a better question is, are YOU as a parent ready to help your child navigate this beautifully complicated world?  Because, once the train is set in motion, it only gains speed. Our role as parents is to help kids learn how to process and navigate social media in healthy ways. Rules, boundaries, internal processing of what we are reading and seeing… In order to do so, it's best if we have mastered that ourselves.

6.  When it comes to social media usage, boys and girls are different. They just are. Boys play games and razz each other. They're probably more likely to want to look up "adult" content. Girls post selfies and text each other like there's no tomorrow. Girls are also more likely to be down right mean, hiding behind the social media veil. Reese said, "Mom, you should see our school lunchroom. Probably half of the boys pull out their phones to play games or something, but I'm telling you, ALL of the girls are on their phones the whole time!" Ugh. 

7.  IDENTITY!! This is the mother of all factors. Adolescence is a time of deep soul-searching and identity formation. Our identities (no matter what our age) should be grounded in truth. Not perceived truth. Social media is a snapshot. One side of a coin. A two-dimensional version of someone's life. That conversation should be paramount as we walk kids down this road.

As you can see, I could probably write about this for a long time. I'll spare you more precious hours in your day. I think a lot of this boils down to knowing your child. Not rocket science, but I believe it's at the crux of this whole issue. Like determining any other responsibilities and privileges, one size does not fit all.

At the end of the day, the digital world isn't going anywhere. It's here to stay and that can be a very good thing. But it also comes with a heck of a lot potential complications and, as far as teenagers are concerned, there's really nothing new under the sun.

Group Participation!!! I would LOVE to hear from you. What are your thoughts on this subject?? What have you done well in regards to parenting teens & social media? Where have you made major mistakes and how did you course correct? (This really is one area where I'm guessing we continually 'write in pencil.')

Holly's Take:

No!  No to all of it!  I can’t stand technology for kids today and I have no filter when it comes to it. My kids are still fairly young (7-11), so I know my tune will change one of these days, but for now, it’s easy.  NO!  I mean, I’m a 41 year old mom, who isn’t dealing with bullying or feeling left out or porn, for crying out loud, and I still feel gross after being too attached to my phone. Smartphones and everything on them are convenient, but not life giving.  Maybe in moderation, but I don’t have that kind of discipline most of the time, so what would make me think tweens and teens would?  I have to leave my phone at home if I go to the park to play with my kids.  That’s ridiculous that I don’t have more self control and my brain is fairly fully developed . . . I think???  After Dave died, Spencer, who was 6 at the time, started getting into video games and I thought it was a good escape.  It didn’t take long to realize that the sweetest boy on earth became a DRAGON after screen time. So, I nixed that and have never looked back. During the week, there is no screen time (except a show Tony watches with the kids each Monday, while I teach piano).  If there is time on the weekends, we’ll let the boys play xbox (which I don’t like) or make iMovies.  I think our house is full of imagination and creativity.  Macie brought with her from Ethiopia an imagination as big as the ocean, and I think it is because she didn’t have TV, video games or toys.  I’d like to keep it that way for as long as possible.  I wonder when I will look back on this post and laugh, because I’m making it sound so black and white????  P.S. - I think that when my kids are as mature as Reese, I'll be open to the idea of not being quite the technology Nazi that I am right now..

Christina's Take: 

I have a million things to say but the one thing that I don't see that either of you have written about yet is that it is OKAY to make mistakes as a parent.

My husband and I have definitely made black-and-white decisions and definitely changed those black-and-white decisions. And we've lived in the grey only to realize we should have been more black and white (i.e.; buying Grand Theft Auto for our teenager and then changing our minds and taking the game back). And I do not regret that.

I think when the chips are down, you focus on the fact the you are having an open dialogue with your kids about the whole situation. When we're having hard conversations about accountability with Jack (16 years old) I hold on to the fact that, even though he isn't happy, at least he knows we love him enough to hash it out.

The beauty of these hard conversations with our kids and with other parents lies in the fact that we are in sticky, messy relationships with each other working things out....

....one Super Mario character at a time.