Middle Schoolers and Social Media

Ana Fox Chaney
When I ask middle schoolers about technology and social media, their reactions are predictably mixed. They like the connection it allows. They like being able to share jokes and experiences and to make plans. They like being able to crowdsource (they don’t call it that) answers to questions about homework assignments or about the timing of the dance. They don’t like the constant notifications, the pileup of messages and posts. In a typically tween understated way, they call this pressure ‘annoying’. They don’t like how easy it is to misread tone and for social tensions to get worse. They don’t like how easy it is to get embarrassed or left out. They have good advice: don’t take your phone to bed, don’t text or post anything you wouldn’t say in person in front of your mom, use privacy settings so you’re only connected to people you know, and have hard conversations in person only.
Much has been written recently about the dangers of social media and the correlation between its use and unhappiness. As this video produced by The Atlantic points out, young people can (like us) learn to post, text, share and “like” in accordance with their principles. If we can pass along values like consideration, humility, and fairness, they will bring those values to bear on their digital lives. This is good news. The question for us as educators and parents is how. How do we model and teach responsible, skillful digital citizenship in the age of finstas, Snapchat and FOMO?
As a community, here are our guiding principles:
  1. 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.
  1. 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. Middle schoolers want us to pay attention and to set limits more than they may ever say. Here is a contract that one parent gave her son when he received his first iPhone. I encourage you to take inspiration from it and use it to create your own family’s rules. Below are some guidelines the we recommend 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.
  1. Cultivate an analog life. You can model this by establishing tech-free times together as a family. Here are some ideas from Janell Burley Hofmann about cultivating some “Slow Tech” rules for your family. Also, middle schoolers need and want opportunities to socialize and to do it away from the watchful eye of adults. 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. 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. Give them permission and opportunities to be outside together. Or to roam a museum. Without their phones.
It was terrific to see so many of you yesterday at our Social Media Evening. I hope that is just the beginning of the conversation. I am including some resources below. As I said yesterday, though, 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.