In this physically distanced version of life, our conflicted relationship with devices stands out even more. We are online more out of necessity and there is greater screen fatigue. We are taking refuge in our devices, maybe too much - too much Netflixing, too much scrolling. But we also depend on our devices for connection more now, grateful for the chance to combat the isolation of pandemic restrictions, and to stay connected to our communities.
Middle schoolers are contending with these same challenges while simultaneously forming their habits and routines around social media and devices for the first time. It is more important than ever to help them do this. To that end, the notes from this week’s social media talk are below, as well as the recording of the talk itself and links to the resources.
As a community, here are our guiding principles:
It’s not (just) about the technology.
The issues that surface when kids start using social media are actually not about the technology or the app itself, though those tools do amplify and accelerate them. Middle schoolers are grappling with what they always have: how to be a good friend, how to be loyal, how to tell the truth when it’s hard, how to keep a secret, when not to keep a secret, how to be funny, how to be forceful, how to be kind, what is romance, what is privacy, what is sexy, what is safe, and what kind of person they want to be. The questions we as adults face are also the same: how to be connected as they gain independence, how to set limits, how to build trust, how to ask the right questions.
Social media requires us to be more involved, not less.
As social media gives children the opportunity to have greater independence and privacy, we need to find new and more skillful ways of staying connected and involved. This means keeping an eye and an ear on what they are looking at, what makes them laugh, and what gets their ‘likes’. It also means insisting on having conversations when the content we see is edgy, inappropriate, or hateful. If you are considering allowing your child to have a social media account, here are some things to keep in mind:
- The most popular apps for middle schoolers are Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat. Common Sense media publishes guides for each of these (linked above) and you should familiarize yourself with anything you’re considering for your child.
- User agreements for all of these apps have a minimum age of 13.
- Privacy settings default to public. If you want to restrict who your child is connected to, or who can see their content, you will need to adjust this with them.
- You should monitor your child’s social media accounts. You can do this by following them, by following their followers, by sharing their login credentials, or by using a third party monitoring app. Keep in mind that there is a difference between public posts and private messages. Following your child will not let you see any messages they send or receive directly from other contacts.
Writing a contract together is a great way to establish good habits and norms. Here is a whole booklet of examples, developed by Janell Burley Hofmann. I encourage you to take inspiration from it and use it to create your own family’s rules.
Below are our LREI middle school guidelines for social media use at this age:
Middle schoolers should get phones when they need them for safety reasons: that is, when they start to travel alone.
Phones should be checked in at night, and not be taken into the bedroom. (Most middle schoolers have said they’re grateful for this rule, even when they outwardly resist it).
The minimum age for virtually every social media app is thirteen, which means if your child has an account it is effectively yours, and under your active supervision.
Talk about appropriateness, kindness, sharing, pressure, status, privacy, sexting, safety, friendships, exclusion. Don’t wait until there’s a problem
Build trust. Let your child know how and when you will be checking up on them and what the expectation is. You are allowed to say, “Ok, I’m checking your texts now, give me your phone for a few minutes.” Don’t read emails, texts, or posts in secret. Give privacy in measured doses and take it back when you need to.
Communicate with other parents and with us. Speak up if anything feels uncomfortable or inappropriate.
Cultivate an analog life.
The list of tips from the film LIKE is here. It includes several strategies for combating the addictive power of social media, including some of the ones I mentioned above, like having a ‘bedtime’ for phones, or turning off notifications. Notably, it also suggests a shift in perspective. Rather than think of limiting social media use as a loss of pleasure, we can consider the connections, the activities and the life we are enjoying instead. You can model this by establishing tech-free times together as a family.
Also, middle schoolers need opportunities to socialize. They want to do it away from the watchful eye of adults and it is perfectly developmentally appropriate for them to do that. Both Danah Boyd, who wrote It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens and Jean Twenge, author of iGen describe how young people have fewer opportunities than past generations to meet up outside, in the neighborhood, at the park or the mall. As a substitute, they are recreating some of that private social time in their lives online. We need to help them connect with each other the old fashioned way. While this is even more challenging than ever, we can still give them permission and opportunities to be outside together, or to talk on the phone rather than log in to an app.
It was terrific to see so many of you Wednesday morning. I hope that is just the beginning of the conversation. The recording of that meeting is linked here. There is no perfect resource, no cheat sheet for which apps are safe and how to monitor them; the world of social media changes so fast. The best way to learn about your child’s life online is to be present and attentive, to stay in conversation with them, with us and each other.