Parenting the Social Media Addicted Child
I was recently checking out at Walgreens when I overheard two mom’s having a conversation that went like this: “Just when I though I had a handle on Instagram, I saw something called Friendstagram. What the hell is that??” Mom number 2 replied, “Can I be honest? My husband and I lie awake at night looking for the Snapchat cloud. Where do those messages go?” This is not the first time I have heard these conversations as they are frequent in my office with parents. It feels impossible to keep up with social media, and furthermore, with what is going on in the lives of our teens and this can feel extremely frightening (and for good reason). This is the stage where for the first time our children want space, independence and autonomy. So not only are we dealing with social media, but we are dealing with grief of the relationship that existed prior to the “teenager.”
So why is this? Our teens are in one of the most vulnerable stages of their lives. These years are directly related to the development of their self-esteem, self-identity and social-identity. Their bodies and minds are changing rapidly. They are demanding more freedom, more space and more understanding. They are vulnerable to the demands of peer pressure, trends and what they are being exposed to on social media. For many of our teens, being “liked” is much more important than anything else. And the thing to remember is that, THIS IS NORMAL. This is exactly where they are supposed to be and at one point, where we all were. This is healthy, appropriate and timely. They are supposed to be exploring new things, new ways of being and new kinds of relationships. They are supposed to be testing limits and boundaries. They are at the very beginning stages of figuring who they are and what they need. They are beginning to ask for more autonomy and independence as they explore new aspects of themselves, requiring parents to tred in some unknown, scary territory. Currently, much of this territory is social media, making it even harder to let go and give space for autonomy and independence.
It is critical to highlight that our teens cannot do this alone. Remember the old saying, “it takes a village?” IT TAKES A VILLAGE. Our teens need the time and space to explore and be in social relationships because it is crucial to their development, but not without the structure and guidance provided by their parents. Many parents have expressed desire to boycott social media and not get their child a phone. I advise against this because we do not want to cut off our children from social interaction and social connection (which is predominantly happening on social media). This is where it’s at today for our teens and accepting this reality allows us to deal with it more tactfully. Tactful management of social media for our teens includes structure, boundaries, open communication and uninterrupted connection.
We cannot control what our teens are exposed to and who they are talking to at any given moment. We are also not able to read their conversations anymore because many of them disappear. What we can do is create open communication and time for connection. Instead of fighting about the phone and bargaining for time, schedule it. Prioritize it. Follow through. Our teens are developing into a more grown-up version of themselves. We don’t want to miss this by trying to control every aspect of their lives (and the reality is we can’t). We want to partner with them in this stage of their life. We want them to be able to come to us when there is struggle, when they are exposed to something that scared them, when they are having conflict, when they are struggling with their own values. We do this through suspending judgement, open communication and spending time with them. Consider Wednesday nights to be dinner night with your teen (at their choice of restaurant). Consider asking them what they are listening to and playing it on the ride to school. Ask them who they are following and why. Get on their level, into their world. Consider taking a more understanding approach to their attachment to their phone. Their phone is their life-line at this stage. When we can show up and value who our teen is becoming, we are teaching them to value themselves. When we can value what’s important to them, we are teaching them they are important. When we can model healthy conflict-resolution, we are teaching them to do the same. This is what this stage of life is all about! If we spend our time teaching them they don’t know how to think for themselves or that what they value doesn’t matter, that’s what they will learn. That will lead to lack of self-trust and low self-esteem. How we interact with them is how they will learn to interact with themselves.
What we can also do is set limits around phone usage. I recommend limits such as charging phone in parents bedroom at night, no phone at meal times and restricting phone time during pre-discussed activities (this goes for parents too). This goes more smoothly when limits are pre-determined and followed through with. They will fight back and request their phone but remember, we want to encourage physical screen time breaks, better quality sleep and the development of the ability to connect with people without a screen. Explain this to them! Explain why it’s important. Teach them to value their health. Encourage them to communicate with their friends that they are busy during certain hours and will be back in the loop shortly. Always remember, work together, not against! This teaches them healthy boundaries and how to utilize them!
In short, we may never understand Friendstagram or find the snapchat cloud, but we don’t have to in order to protect our teens. If we stop trying to make sense of social media and stop trying to control every piece of their lives, we can put our time and energy into making this stage of their life optimal. We can skillfully teach boundary setting, healthy conflict resolution, how to connect without a screen, how to value our individual identities, how to be confident in our choices, how to take care of our health and how to ask for help. We can continue to model and teach the values we want to instill and foster their developing identity through connection, unconditional love, acceptance and openness. This is the biggest gift we can give them. The gift of learning how to value and respect themselves.