Social media and the pandemic: another parenting challenge

As people familiar with my blog know, I am not a big fan of social media. Recent events at school have reaffirmed my dislike. I have eliminated it from my personal life. I get that it is easier to do as an adult, with a healthy set of relationships and an established professional career. It’s not so easy when you are young, and your entire social universe may revolve around social media. The pandemic has only made that need for human connection more intense; and social media is one of the few ways that young people can stay connected. Even before the pandemic, it was nearly impossible for parents to hold the line on not allowing social media use of some type. Some parents find it hard to supervise their child’s social media use—doing so can feel invasive. Even if they try, certain apps deliberately make it very hard for parents to track what is happening on their child’s phone. (Check out this guide to the apps that teens most often use and how they work.)

But, folks, let’s lean in here and have a real conversation. We have seen some adults not handle social media very well; and we shouldn’t expect kids to do much better. The mental health toll is significant, and social media use is a clear cause in the rise of anxiety and depression. What I am most concerned about is the toxic world that exists online. Even though a lot of use is innocent and brings people together, the social media world can and does bring terrible things into the lives of children. I am talking about mean-spirited exchanges, racist language, anti-Semitic ideas, sexism, and homophobia, just to name a few. Educators I speak with have noticed a rise in bad behavior online and kids engaging in conversations that go against the values that schools and families like ours hold.

Despite how challenging it may be, we need your help. Please talk to your child about what they are seeing and doing online. Make sure they understand your expectations. Help them help themselves by looking at their apps and knowing the kinds of conversations they are having. Remind them that there can be consequences for what is in their digital footprint.

A great resource is this week’s SPEAK presenter, Devorah Heitner. She spoke with us last spring, as well, and supported our community as we transitioned to our fully remote model. Devorah is the founder of Raising Digital Natives, which provides support to parents and educators on navigating children’s connectedness in the digital world. She also wrote the book Screenwise, Helping Kids Survive and Thrive in Their Digital World, which helps parents guide children to make safe decisions within their technology and to develop skills to set them up for success in our ever-changing world.

This year’s visit is timely, in that several of our classes are really struggling with appropriate use of their technology. One point that really struck me was that it’s easy to have what she called “disinhibition”—that is, those sending hurtful messages sometimes forget there is someone on the other end receiving them, reacting to them, being hurt. I also liked her suggestion to get an alarm clock and not use your phone as your alarm. She said to put the phone to bed each night, too.

Coming out of COVID-19, we are going to have to do more work on this front with both students and families. Heitner recommends that we reflect on the pandemic’s impact within our families. What worked­—like more family dinner time, and what didn’t—like too much screen time. And when it comes to social media mistakes, parents are encouraged to not take the moral high road and to withhold judgment, and focus on having conversations on being safe from harm. You want your child to want to talk to you about what they are seeing on the internet. Technology has allowed us to stay connected, but if we’re not careful, it can also lead us astray. I am hopeful that the simple reminders shared today put us all back on the right path.