Close your eyes and take yourself back to your middle school years for a moment.
No thanks, right?
For almost all of us, middle school was a time of awkwardness and the search for acceptance. It's also a time when a massive shift begins to take place: for the first time peers start to matter as much, if not more, than family. Forming our own identity as individuals and developing a sense of belonging become the basic needs that we're trying desperately to get met.
The awkward years certainly didn't escape me. In sixth grade, my family moved from West Virginia to Florida and, from my eleven year-old point of view, I may as well have been moving to a foreign country--everything about my world suddenly felt different. I figured two things out quickly: that everything that had been cool back home was definitely NOT cool here and that the girls here were way more advanced. A girl in my 6th grade English class talked about smoking and sex--things that weren't even remotely crossing my mind yet. By the end of that first day I'd been made fun of for my accent, clothes, and body. Things were not off to a good start.
There’s two approaches a new girl in my position can take: try desperately to be noticed and accepted by the A-listers or try desperately to just get through each day unnoticed and fly under the radar. I became good at manipulating so that I could do that latter. I made good grades and stayed quiet in my classes so that teachers wouldn't notice me and I found ways to dodge social times before and after school by pretending to be sick. The guidance counselor's desk sat across from the clinic. After awhile I began to dislike the way she traced me with her eyes as I headed there each day.
Finally one morning she struck up a conversation. I don't remember many other teachers' names from back then but her name was Mary Cooper. She asked me if I would help her in the mornings with work and it was during that time that we would have conversations. She didn't grill me with questions about whether I was happy or needed help, we just talked as I worked. I was kind of on to her game but deep down it felt good that someone at school was finally seeing through my act. Over time she helped me develop the skills I needed to find the two things every middle schooler is looking for: acceptance and belonging.
So I look back at those difficult years and I think to myself: Thank God I had Mary Cooper and thank God I didn't have a smartphone.
Because the search for belonging and acceptance can get messy if you have access to pretty much anything and anybody at anytime. A world of information at your fingertips mixed with raging hormones and poor judgment seem like a recipe for disaster. I look at my four year-old and wonder how in the world I'm going to navigate this territory. I didn't have a cell phone until I left for college and it certainly wasn't a smartphone--the world he'll go through puberty in is an entirely different one than I did. Trying to keep up with it & keep control over it feels overwhelming.
When it comes to our kids & technology, there are so many layers of concern: the instant access they have to so much information, the addictive nature of social media and gaming, the “stranger danger” aspect of chatting online, the list of concerns is long. Here's a few reasons why it's especially tricky territory for our tweens & teens:
#1--Hormones & The Adolescent Brain
The ages of 10-15 are a time of dramatic changes in the brain. Hormones are raging so hard that they have a similar impairment on logic as alcohol. Proportionally speaking: if the effect of testosterone in the adult male brain is equal to one cup of beer, adolescent males are walking around with the equivalent of a gallon!* This impairment in judgment often leads to more risky behaviors like skipping class, cheating, or exploring inappropriate content online.
What doesn't help is that the adolescent brain also struggles to make the connection between their choices and the long-term consequences--they often fail to see the "big picture" of things, including how their own behavior affects others. When you ask a twelve year-old boy "don't you realize how your behavior is disrupting the entire class?" and he answers "no"...he's probably telling the truth. We, as adults, have to help them make that connection. The failure to fully understand long-term consequences of risky behavior is especially problematic in the online arena: once something is posted, it's out there--possibly forever.
#2--There's No Escaping It
I can remember during those tough days of almost constant teasing from my peers just counting the hours until I could get home. They would tease me on the bus, walking off the bus, and walking through the neighborhood. But when my feet hit my yard, I could let out a breath of relief. I could relax and get away from it until the next day. At home people loved me, I belonged.
While some teens today can still seek refuge within their own families, they don't have the luxury of fully escaping teasing & bullying just because they’re away from school. Cyberbullying is now the most common form of bullying and the harassment is taking place mostly via text and social media. Had I had a computer or phone back then, even home wouldn't have been a refuge.
#3--The Need for Acceptance + Belonging = Social Media Obsession
The 24/7 nature of the online world makes it difficult for us, as adults, to breakaway. Think about how hard it must be for kids still learning self-control. Add in a yearning for the acceptance and approval of your friends and it can cross over into an unhealthy obsession. Here are some interesting statistics from a survey of teens* in regard to technology use:
With such disturbing statistics, it’s clear that our kids need a place to ask questions and seek guidance, and of course our hope as parents that they will reach out to us for that. But even teens who report feeling close with their parents said they shy away from reaching out to them about these issues. Why? Because they're afraid if their parents know about what they’re seeing or the struggles they’re having around technology, their electronics will be taken away. This leaves parents in a tricky predicament--how do we help if we don't know what's going on?
While these statistics are troublesome, the solution isn’t as easy as cutting out technology use altogether—not only is it nearly impossible to actually enforce, it removes the benefits that technology brings to their lives as well (and it does). Teens who were surveyed about how they feel technology positively impacts their lives reported benefits such as increased confidence, a broader knowledge of what’s going on in the world, & a wider array of friends, from cultures and backgrounds they might not otherwise be exposed to. They also share that the use of text messaging, as opposed to face-to-face conversation, allows them to perfect & accurately express exactly what it is they want to say and prevents the miscommunication of “not getting the words out right”.
According to the girls' empowerment network Smart Girl Society, social media actually has some benefits as well, including increased awareness around social issues and exposure to opinions and beliefs outside those of their immediate family and friends. In other words, social media and other forms of technology open our teens to a wider world--which, of course, can be both good and bad.
Overall, I'm not sure the basics of how we should approach responsible internet & social media use is all that different in the long run than how our parents approached other topics of concern with us...for the most part, maybe the old philosophies still apply:
At the heart of responsible technology use is self-discipline—a great thing to model for our kids. A mentor of mine shared that the word discipline comes from the word disciple, which means the student or follower of a leader. Maybe, when it comes to technology, our role should be “leader by example” more than “enforcer”.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic in the comments below or on social media (oh the irony 🙄). For more tips and helpful information, check out the links below:
"How To Teach Your Kids To Use Social Media Responsibly" (Huffington Post)
"Are There Positive Effects From Social Media For Teens?" (Smart Girl Society)
"Parenting in the Age of Online Pornography" (NY Times)
"The Secret Social Media Lives of Teenagers" (NY Times)
*Much of the information from this post came from the knowledgeable speakers at the 2018 Orlando Innovative Schools Summit. Follow them on Twitter for more helpful parenting & teaching tips:
Tracie Berry-McGhee, Therapist/Speaker/Author/Founder of SistaKeeper
Brian Mendler, Speaker/Author/Expert on Working with Disruptive Students
Larry Thompson, Principal/Speaker/Author
Robert Jackson, Speaker/Author/Consultant
Steph Jensen, SEL expert/Speaker/Author