by Melanie Hempe
Originally published in Psychology Today
I really love middle school kids, I have two of them! If you have been through middle-school parenting, you may have also noticed what I see. Crazy things seem to happen to a tween’s brain the first day they walk into middle school.
One might sum up their main goals in life this way:
- To be funny at all cost. (hence repeating the silly bathroom, talking at inappropriate times in class, and adopting the “anything it takes to be popular” attitude)
- They focus on SELF. (their clothes, their nose, their body, and their hair!)
- They try new things. They are playing “dress-up” with their new identity, trying on things to see what fits. They are impulsive and scattered, they are up and they are down, and it even seems that they have regressed in their development on their quest for independence.
As the parent, you are changing too as you have entered the stage of parenting when you quickly depart from the naive platform of “My child would never…” to the realization that “I’m sure my child did that, I’m sorry, and please excuse his behavior, he is going through a phase.” In short, they are reckless!
Your list of daily parenting instruction includes statements such as:
- “If you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all.”
- “How many times do I have to tell you not to use that word.”
- “Stop flipping that bottle!”
- “Stop burping the ABC’s”
- “You are acting like a 2-year-old.”
- “What are you thinking?”
Then it happens … maybe because we are exhausted from their constant begging for a phone, or because we think that all their friends have one, or because we want to upgrade ours to the latest model, we cave. We act on an impulse. Our midbrain seems to be regressing like theirs, and we give them our old smartphone.
Along with that one little decision comes the world of social media access, something that we have not thought about and something that none of us are prepared for. Because their midbrain is reorganizing itself and risk taking is high and impulse control very low, I can’t imagine a worse time in a child’s life to have access to social media than middle school. Here are just a few reasons why:
- Social media was not designed for kids.Their underdeveloped frontal cortex can’t manage the distraction or the temptations that come with social media use. While you need to start teaching responsible use of tech now, know that you will not be able to teach the maturity that social media requires. Like toddlers trying to make clothes fit that are way too big, tweens will use social media inappropriately until they are older and it fits them better.
- Social media is an entertainment technology.It does not make your child smarter, more prepared for real life or a future job, nor is it necessary for healthy social development. Social media is pure entertainment attached to a genius marketing platform that extracts bits and pieces of personal information and preferences from your children every time they are on it, not to mention consuming precious hours of their time and attention.
- The tween “more is better” way of doing life is a dangerous habit on social media. Do they really have 1,456 friends? Do they really need to be on it nine hours day? Social media allows (and encourages) them to overdo their friend connection just as they tend to overdo other things in their life.
- Social media is a very addictive form of screen entertainment. Like video game addiction, early use can set up future addiction patterns and habits.
- Social media easily replaces learning the hard “social” work of dealing face to face with peers, a skill that they will need to practice to be successful in real life.
- Social media can cause teens to lose connection from their family and view “friends” as their foundation. Since the cognitive brain is still being formed, the need for your teens to be attached to your family is just as important now as when they were younger. Make sure that attachment is strong. While they need attachments to their friends, they need healthy family attachment more.
- Social media is a really big waste of time and lost potential for teens. While one can argue social media offers certain benefits for teens, the costs are very high during the teen years when their developing brains are operating at peak performance for learning new things. It is easy for teens to waste too much of their time and too much of their brain in a digital world. Many studies confirm that it is nearly impossible for them to balance it all.
How Can Kids Slow Down?
First, we need to slow down and rethink what we are allowing our kids to do. We need to understand the world of social media and how teens use it differently from adults. Here are a few tips that work well for many parents:
- Delay access. The longer parents delay access, the more time the child will have to mature so that he or she can use technology more wisely as a young adult. Delaying access also puts a greater importance on and encourages personal authentic relationships and experiences to develop first.
- Follow their social media accounts. Social media privacy is a lie, nothing is private to the rest of the digital world, so it should not be private to parents. Make sure privacy settings are in place but know that privacy settings can give you a false sense of security. Encourage your teen to have private conversations in person or via a verbal phone call instead if they don’t want Grandma to read it on social media.
- Create family accounts. Create family accounts instead of individual teen accounts. This allows teens to follow friends and keep up with “what’s going on” in a safer social media environment.
- Allow social media only on large screens. Allow your teens to only use their social media accounts on home computers or laptops in plain view, this way they will use it less. When it is used on a small private phone screen in their pocket there are more potential problems with reckless use. The more secret the access, the more potential for bad choices.
- Keep a sharp eye on the clock; they cannot. Do you know how much time your child spends on social media a day? Be aware of this, and reduce the amount of time your child is on social media across all platforms. The average teen spends nine hours a day connected to social media. Instead, set one time each day for three days a week for your child to check their social media. Do they benefit from more time than that?
- Plan face-to-face time for your teens with their friends. Remember that they don’t need 842 friends; four to six close friends are enough for healthy social development. Help them learn how to plan real, in-person, social get togethers such as a (leave-phones-at-the-door) party, a home movie night, bowling, board games, cooking pizza or bonfire. They crave these social gatherings so encourage them to invite friends over and help them (as needed) to organize the event.
- Spend more real non-tech time with your children. Teens who are strongly attached to their parents and family show more overall happiness and success in life. They still need us now more than ever. It is easy to detach from them, face it — teens can be annoying! Attaching to family allows them to detach from the social media drama. Your child needs to feel like they can come home and leave the drama of their social world behind for a few hours. They want you to help them say “No” to social media and “Yes” to more time with the family. They are craving those moments to disconnect, so make plans and encourage this at home.
Managing social media is not as hard as you think. Don’t give that smartphone all the power in your home; help tweens choose healthier forms of entertainment instead. They have the rest of their lives to be distracted by social media, but only a limited time with you. Enjoy these middle school years. While you may not be able to limit their middle school humor at home, you certainly can limit their immature choices on social media!