Growing up as a digital native with a phone in my hand and gaming console in my basement, I experienced parents unsuccessfully trying to scare and restrict us kids from using technology. They tried with good intentions, but they had it wrong.
Now, in my work huddling with thousands of students around the country, I’ve come to believe today’s kids have it right. They see social media and technology as some of the most empowering tools they will ever have. And make no mistake: Social media is now one of the greatest influences on our health, happiness, and future success.
That’s why we must refine how we raise our children, and their relationship to technology. Because social media isn’t going away, we must empower, equip, and listen to our kids, rather than scare, restrict, and ignore them. To that end, our team at The Social Institute begins our work with students, parents, and educators by reframing how they think about it.
So, parents, here are five mind-bending truths to get you started on proactively helping your kids navigate social media while avoiding the usual teenager “eye roll.”
- Social media is our character and reputation, not our digital footprint or personal brand. Who we are online is who we are offline, too. It’s not separate from us or something that we should actively “manage” to portray an endless highlight reel of perfection. Social media is us, and what we share, like, and comment on should reflect our values, interests, and goals.
- Social media can easily be a source of positivity, not negativity. Imagine the effect on young students if social media feeds were filled with posts by positive role models and friends and family members who encourage them, support them, and back them up. Sure, they will probably experience trolls and bullying. But they will also know how to handle it because the people they see most often online — including YOU — show them how it’s done. And you have their backs.
- Social media expands our world; it doesn’t shrink it. The popular theory that social media creates echo chambers in which only our ideas are preached back at us is unfounded. In fact, the opposite is true: Social media opens our eyes to other perspectives, cultures, and views. As kids get more experience on social media and begin following publications, journalists, thinkers, and writers, they’ll be exposed to ideas and perspectives simply unavailable to most people even 15 years ago.
- It’s about huddling, not helicoptering. The digital equivalent of helicopter parenting is relying heavily on monitoring tools like Bark, Circle with Disney, and Net Nanny. All of these and others like them are helpful as ancillary tools to what we at The Social Institute call “huddling.” When you huddle with your child, you have a one-on-one conversation about social media — your experiences and theirs. You learn from each other about different platforms and devices (because they know more than you), and about different ways to handle tough social situations (because you know more than they do). Huddling is vital because parents build trust with their kids by listening and having regular conversations about potentially tough topics (rather than overreacting and losing their kids’ trust). Huddling builds trust; helicoptering tears it down.
- Let’s teach the Do’s, not just the Don’ts. Imagine giving your 16-year-old keys to a car after giving them the following advice: Don’t run red lights, don’t go over the speed limit, and don’t get into an accident. They’d have no idea how to actually drive the car. But we often do this before giving our kids their first smartphones: Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want grandma to see, don’t talk to strangers, and don’t send anyone naked photos. Kids must be told what TO do, not just what NOT to do. Examples of what to say include: Follow positive role models, share what you’re most passionate about, build up others by sharing their good news, etc. And model positive use of technology yourself. After all, they notice your digital double standards.
A lot has changed since I grew up with a phone in my pocket. What hasn’t changed is teens’ ability to be high-character individuals, whether online or off. Social media is not going away; after all, it’s how teens socialize. It’s a tool that is here to stay, and every new tool comes with new opportunities. Today’s students have it right: Social media is one of the most empowering tools they will ever use. Let’s help them use it for good.