Imagine an intervention that will help parents more effectively, and with less parent-child conflict, set rules and limits to prevent social media addiction and protect against social media-related dangers (cyberbullying, harassment, trafficking, etc.)
In every one of our parent workshops, at least one parent will share their experience of trying to limit their teen’s social media use. Undoubtedly, when the parent imposes some guidelines or restrictions, the teen will cry out with righteous indignation:
- But, my friends’ parents don’t care how late at night they use social media!
- But, all the other kids in my class are playing Fortnite right now!
- But, I need to be using WhatsApp tonight, because we are discussing our homework!
- If you do not let me on social media, I won’t be popular!
Sound familiar? Because social media has become a central medium from which teens conduct their social interactions, parents face several, very real challenges in trying to regulate and supervise social media use.
First, as just illustrated, setting social media limits leads to parent-child conflict because of the social pressures, expectations, and customs that social media creates for teens. Social media is omnipresent in our teens’ lives, consumed on average for a whopping 9 hours a day, and is used to communicate, determine and solidify relationships, and even conduct schoolwork.
- Students in many schools measure the strength of their friendships based on the length of their Snapchat “streaks”.
- Nearly entire grades of students are spending multiple hours a night playing each other on Fortnite.
- And, there are many schools where teens are encouraged to collaborate on homework assignments via social media.
When parents try to enforce rules or limits that cut against the social norms their teen experiences and observes on a daily basis, the teen will naturally feel a sense of deprivation. And so, whether or not that deprivation manifests in outright defiance, verbal conflict, or grudging acceptance, most teens will not mentally or emotionally buy into social media and smartphone limits.
This lack of buy-in then creates real enforcement challenges for parents particularly given the technological power of smartphones and social media. Since the smartphone is small and portable and its applications, including social media, are always available, skirting rules and limits without the possibility of detection is easy for any willing teen. Among many methods of evasion, besides simply having a phone ever-present in a pocket, that teens are familiar with include:
- Teens without phones can set up social media accounts through friends’ phones or laptops.
- A number of apps exist online that allow teens to hide other apps or pictures or texts on their phones.
- If your family enforces a no phone or screen time rule for sleepovers or get-togethers, teens can migrate to the houses that do allow screen time.
- And, teens, whose parents have either chosen not to give their teen a phone or who have rescinded their teen’s phone privileges, can secure an older, “junk” phone from a friend and rely on wifi to connect to the internet.
Parents that can move past these two obstacles then encounter real tradeoffs in limiting phone use and social media. In many schools, social relationships now depend upon social media. Friendships often are created and survive based upon an invitation into and then frequent participation on private WhatsApp groups. While studies in this area are lacking or non-existent, we would theorize that complete or near complete restriction of social media, for school communities where social media use is high, can now possibly, and counterintuitively, be a detriment to a teen’s development and emotional health.
(Important to note, this concern is not about students achieving elite social status. In fact, there are studies which suggest that high school popularity is a long-term risk factor. Rather, we are talking here about the development and maintenance of a majority of the relationships throughout entire grade levels, not simply the so-called elite ones.)
To be clear, we do believe that given the addicting nature of social media and the many dangers that lie within, teens, especially younger teens, need some limits and oversight. (And, we firmly believe that children under the age of 13 should not have access to social media; though, we do realize that many tweens are now actively using social media despite our referencing of “teens” throughout this article.) The central problem, as we have now laid out, is that the current social dynamic sets up a no-win situation for every parent no matter their choices with regard to limiting social media. Quite simply, making social media safe for our teens should not be this hard.
Well, the Organization for Social Media Safety has a recommendation for you and your school. Instead of battling it out one on one with our children while their friends and peers, friends’ parents, and teachers operate with different expectations and clash with our efforts, the parent community in each school needs to come together to determine a set of standards for social media: community guidelines.
We recommend that the parent association and school leadership of your school create a set of voluntary and baseline guidelines for smartphone and social media use outside of the school. These guidelines can include, among many other possibilities:
- expectations for total daily use;
- curfews detailing when students are expected to stop posting and texting for the night;
- specific app and game restrictions, including age limits;
- expected parental responses to cyberbullying, sexting, and hate speech incidences, among others.
The participation and support of a majority of the parent community are vitally important; otherwise, the process becomes a waste of time that just leads to more conflict. The very point of this exercise is that all families will now be enforcing the same basic standards thereby minimizing the challenges discussed above: conflict, evasion, and social tradeoffs. That is why we suggest that once the guidelines are developed, they are sent to the parent community for a survey or vote, and only those guidelines that are approved by at least 75% of the community be accepted.
Two considerations to note:
- Though some parents will choose to go beyond the guidelines and some will choose not to abide by them, those choices need to be respected because community-developed guidelines cannot apply to all family situations or supersede the fundamental ability of parents to make the best choices for their own children. So long as a majority of the community buys into and enforces the minimum guidelines, they will be effective.
- Unfortunately, we cannot simply hand out recommendations for the masses that can be readily adopted by your own parent association. Each school has its own social media culture with different customs and habits, and each school’s parent community has different expectations, abilities, and needs. So, each parent community must consider its own particular set of needs for its children, and each school can only promulgate the specific guidelines that it determines an overwhelming majority of its parents will support and enforce.
This all surely seems like a lot of effort, but what is happening currently throughout the country is that school communities are already setting standards; however, these standards are being set through a passive social process that functions more like a race towards no limits at all. In any given school, we have seen this play out, especially in the younger grade levels.
For example, the parents of one fifth-grader will choose to allow their child to use social media. Soon, other children in the class are asking their parents for access to social media, and some of those parents consent. And, then some sort of critical mass is reached where the children not yet on social media feel left out, so most of their parents finally yield to the pressure. This process is happening despite the fact that most of the parents in this fifth-grade class do not actually want their children on social media and bemoan that they are. We must transform this passive process into one where we come together formally and make conscious decisions that fully consider the best interests of the children in our community.
Of course, setting community guidelines is not a utopia. It requires both initiative and time. It requires difficult choices to be made as a group. And, it requires the effort of consistent enforcement at home. But, if we are going to succeed in fighting social media addiction and protecting our children from social media-related dangers, parenting in this social media era must actually become social again.
If you would like to learn more about how we can assist your school in setting up community guidelines, please feel free to contact us.