Eat, sleep, check our feeds. It is no secret that social media has become a staple in our lives, and the same is true for our kids. While limitless access to information has its benefits, overexposure to social media can damage our self-worth, and these effects can be even more profound for our youth.
All kids, and teenagers in particular, constantly compare themselves to others. This is true both at school and at home. Effortless access to social media’s channels, filters and unmitigated self-promotion only makes it easier for them to compare the lives of others with their own. For this reason, it’s important to remind kids that social media is not an accurate representation of life. Life, most of the time, is pretty ordinary. We have good days and bad ones, struggles and challenges, and yet social media allows us (and others) to hide these realities from the world. So how do we teach our kids that their self-worth should not depend on the superficial validation of Instagram likes or Snapchat followers?
The conversations you have with your children about social media are crucial. Kids are sponges, and any educator or parent will tell you that even when it seems like they aren’t listening, kids still hear and register everything that we say and do. Our comments — no matter how small or infrequent — alter our children’s assumptions and help them to create new perspectives about the world. The frequency and clarity with which we talk to them about the impact of social media, the more prepared they will be to understand — and even appreciate — the differences between real life and what they observe online.
As you begin to introduce technology and social media to your children, ask them: What do you love about these things? Is it real? How do these outlets make you feel? Then remind them how easy it is to reveal only the good, the beautiful and the cool on social media while hiding the ordinary and the plain. Carefully curated content looks perfect, but life is not. And that’s an important concept to understand.
Just as you may watch an action or adventure movie and easily distinguish what is realistic and what is edited for entertainment’s sake, you can take that same approach with your kids every time they go online. Remind your kids to view everything with a critical eye. What is cropped, changed or edited out? Which part of the story isn’t shown? And why has a person chosen to represent him or herself in this way?
Another vital element of social media’s presence in our lives is the reality that nothing is private and nobody is anonymous. From the time they first start using technology for social media, our kids need to know that they are not invincible online. It can be easy to fall into the illusion of privacy, but we must realize the risks of oversharing or simply putting ourselves in a public space, even if it’s behind a screen.
When it comes to your involvement with your child’s social media use, privacy can be a double-edged sword. Be aware of where and with whom your children are engaging, but also be open with them about the positives and negatives of what they are sharing online. Everything is public and permanent, and it’s vital that those using social media — most on a daily basis — understand that. We need to encourage our kids to think before they post and be critical about what they are promoting as representative of themselves.
By encouraging more authentic approaches to the online world, we are hoping for less comparisons and a deeper understanding of what is real life and what is “for the likes.”
As parents, we must also be careful not to judge all of social media en masse. Instead of demonizing its overuse, we can ask questions about websites and social feeds and allow our kids to make their own observations about what is real and what is not. This is empowering for young people, and it helps them to develop stronger inner voices.
In time, our kids will begin to intrinsically understand why we monitor their screen time and discourage too much time spent watching other people online. They’ll still complain, but at least they’ll know why we’re creating such guidelines. You can reiterate the fact that overexposure to things that aren’t real corrupts our sense of what is true and authentic, which isn’t healthy.
In our hyper-connected world, it’s hard to know how much of what we see online is genuine. So let’s remind our kids that imperfections and authenticity are what make us unique and that our value doesn’t come from what we observe in others online or how many likes we get but from who we choose to be in real, everyday life.
Joshua Wolf is the father of two 12-year-old boys and an 18-year-old daughter. He is the head of the middle school at The Park School of Baltimore.