“No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”
–Frank Lloyd Wright
As I have said many times, adolescence is a time of great development for children. Middle school is a time in which development is greatly focused on the social and emotional. One aspect of this development is a sense of belonging. As children seek greater autonomy away from their parents, they seek greater acceptance from their peers. After all, their bodies and minds are preparing for a life away from their parents’ home. This can lead children to question where they belong and what they enjoy doing.
Today, adolescents use new methods to satisfy this developmental stage that might be unfamiliar to parents who relied on team sports, organized after school activities, or good ol’ fashioned trips to hang out at the mall. Social media now plays an active role in developing a sense of belonging in positive and, potentially, negative ways. As parents, we should be aware of how our children are using these platforms and actively monitor its usage.
There are many reasons why children turn to social media to fulfill their need for friendships. Accessibility is one of the main reasons that social media has become more prevalent. Within our student population, about 80% of sixth graders have cell phones and 100% have internet ready iPads. Connecting to social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Music.ly, etc. doesn’t require asking parents for a ride somewhere or money for snacks or activities. It can be done in the privacy of their room, and typically parents are unaware of what adolescents are posting or discussing. In addition, adolescents, who consider themselves to be shy or quiet, can engage with peers without the pressure of attempting “small talk”. This allows them to feel more open and honest in their communications without giving up personal space. The nearly instantaneous response time promotes feelings of gratification and acceptance as well.
As a parent, there are a few patterns to observe with adolescent’s social media usage. Initially, pre-teens will post EVERYTHING about their lives while they learn to discern what is most likely to receive “likes” from their peers. They will focus heavily on their number of followers and likes. While this is a normal part of trying to feed their desire to belong, it can quickly become an obsession. Adolescents might also “friend” people they have never met or friends of friends. Typically, these interactions are positive. Adolescents create a positive social network that provides a wide range of emotional support. For example, posting about a “bad day” can have friend rallying around for support in droves. This feeling of support can help to promote positive connections and boost self-esteem.
Unfortunately, there can be negative sides to increased social media use as well. Pre-teens tend to be impulsive in their usage, especially when first becoming familiar with the platforms. These posts can have long-term negative ramifications. For example, teens who are prone to provide personal information or situations might open themselves up to negative comments from peers. They might also regret having certain posts “out there” in the future. In addition, unregulated use of social media can feed social comparisons. At this stage of development, girls are more likely to compare themselves to others. While they are trying to achieve a feeling of belonging, it can have the opposite effect. Overuse of social media can also lead to sleep disruptions, which can reduce resilience and focus.
As parents, we can do several things to help mitigate the negative side effects of social media use by using the following guidelines:
- Determine age appropriateness of devices and social media. As parents, we can always determine when our children are mature enough to handle certain devices and apps. Just because it is perceived that “everyone” has a cell phone, doesn’t mean they do, and it doesn’t mean our children are ready to have one.
- Use parental restrictions to limit the use of certain social media apps such as SnapChat.
- Monitor and limit usage. See earlier Knight’s Scrolls on ways to monitor usage.
- Have open conversations about consequences of social media use. These conversations should not just include your parental consequences but also potential social consequences.