Social media and the parent-child bond are among the themes in my novel, “Don’t Try to Find Me.” They were also among the topics of a recent radio interview I gave (thanks to Answers for the Family for a great talk! you can listen to it here.) While there are the obvious ways that social media can harm a teenager (for example, cyber bullying) there are some more insidious ones as well.
What are they, and what’s a parent to do?1) Social media desensitizes, and that makes it fertile ground for bullying.
Often, we think in terms of whether our own children are being bullied. If they’re not, we might think, “Whew,” and leave it at that.
But it’s possible that your teen is part of the bullying of others. They might not be the ringleader, but they might become members of the dog pile. They might not even be making their own tweets or comments, but just supporting that of others. Or they’re tacitly supporting the nastiness by not speaking up in defense of the person being attacked.
That’s because social media turns people into objects. It dehumanizes them. And that makes it easy to forget that the object of your tweet is a real person, who has real feelings upon reading what’s been written. And that can have real-life consequences (consider examples of teens attempting and/or succeeding in killing themselves in response to online cruelty.)
As a parent, one of your goals is to help your child develop empathy. So help them with taking other people’s perspectives. Point out articles and links that might be relevant (like the stories about teen suicide), and then discuss.
It can also help to have deeper conversations about books that you’ve both read, or movies you’ve both seen–anything where you can challenge their biases and prejudices and encourage them to consider why others feel as they do.
2) Check your child’s attention span.
It might be shortening as we speak. Think how brief a tweet is, or a caption on Instagram. (Teens are leaving Facebook in droves. Too long-winded, perhaps?)
What we want to encourage in our children is good decision-making, and that means slowing down and weighing all options. Social media discourages that. Which makes it even more crucial for a parent to encourage it.
Designate periods of time when your child is disconnected from all media. During family dinners, for example, the phone should be off (for the parents as well as the children. Hypocrisy hurts your credibility.) There should be other times as well.
Make sure your kids read. (And I’m not just saying that as an author myself.) I’m saying it because reading is different from TV or movies in that an imaginative leap is required, and immersion in a world that they have to visualize themselves. That works to lengthen attention spans.
3) Meaningful emotional connections to others–and a thoughtful engagement with the world around you–involves time, and patience. Social media trains us to engage shallowly.
Think about the last long conversation you had with your child. Think if your teens’ longest conversations with their friends are by text, which is generally pithy and superficial.
Social media can actually decrease capacity for intimacy. Closeness requires presence, and many teens are spending their time with friends texting their other friends.
Make sure that you’re modeling the behavior you want your child to emulate. Be fully present for your conversations with him/her. Encourage reflective thought and deeper analysis. And consider the state of your relationship with your teen, and what it would take to connect more. It might be pursuing a shared interest, or taking a day trip together. Getting away from it all–with phones off–is a good start.