As the mother of tweens and adolescents, I am given a front seat to the impact of social media on today's youth. On a daily basis, my conversations with other parents in the school parking lot and sidelines turn into heated discussions of what to do about Snapchat, selfies, cyber-bullying, and sexting.
I think back to my own childhood. Navigating self-esteem and relationship matters was challenging enough in the pre-digital era. Now social media puts all those struggles on a very public stage. It also provides a constant window for comparing oneself to peers which can lead to feelings of jealousy, depression and low self-esteem.
A 2013 study from Australia found that the more time girls spend on social media, the more likely they were to be unhappy with their bodies. Two German universities found that "passive following" on Facebook (i.e. scrolling through news feeds without interacting) leads to feelings of envy and resentment.
Yet while I worry about the effect of social media on my kids and their friends, I recognize how immersed I am in social media myself. Just today, I posted photos from a talk I gave at a Marketing Bootcamp. I tweeted out a recent blog post and teased my upcoming TV appearances. As an entrepreneur, social media is a powerful way to build a community and my brand.
I know I'm not alone. I see so many moms (and dads) constantly on the go, running errands, driving from school to school, while checking in with friends, family and colleagues through texting, Twitter, and Facebook. I have no judgment for how any parent chooses to navigate Snapchat, Vine, and Instagram with their kids, but I know I need to intervene for myself and my family.
There's no definitive parent handbook for dealing with social media. As soon as we feel like we have a handle on one social network, up pops an entirely new tool with a new set of rules.
Here are a few guidelines that I'm trying to use to balance social media as a parent and entrepreneur, and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts as well.
1. Help kids understand that social media is an idealized world
Social media, particularly Instagram, messes with our perception of reality. Catalina Toma of the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison explained it this way: "You spend so much time creating flattering, idealized images of yourself, sorting through hundreds of images for that one perfect picture, but you don't necessarily grasp that everybody else is spending a lot of time doing the same thing."
When a teen sees a beautiful photo posted by a friend, she doesn't think about the fact that her friend probably spent time carefully curating and filtering 50 pictures to get the best one. Kids need to understand that they should take whatever they see on their social feeds with a grain of salt. To varying degrees, we all promote the good in our lives and filter out everything else.
2. It's not just "screen time," but the quality of social media activities
When you hear the horror stories involving teens and social media, you want to eliminate it from your kids' lives altogether. While this may be possible and appropriate with younger kids, social media is a normal part of an older teen's life and the world they live in. Rather than outlawing social media altogether or monitoring it purely based on time, it's important to monitor the quality of social media activities they're engaging in. Since studies show that passively reading other people's posts can lead to depression, you can encourage your kids to do more positive activities like viewing their own profiles or complimenting/encouraging a friend.
3. Uncouple self-esteem from Likes
Teens crave external validation from their peers, and social networks offer numerous ways to seek this validation - from number of friends to likes on a photo. When my children are ready for posting photos on social networks, I want them to share images that make them happy and feel proud, rather than counting up the number of likes or comments. Likewise, I need to stop comparing my company's social media activity with marketing mega-stars like Starbucks and Virgin America.
4. Be a role model
Perhaps one of the most important things I can do is to set an example by using social media the way I want my kids to use it. Health and Life Coach Cozetta Lagemann offers the following tips: 1) When your kids come up to you, set aside your phone and 2) Take intentional technology breaks. "Set aside an entire Sunday (or any other block of time that works for you) and turn off your phone, laptop, tablet etc. Showing your kids that life does in fact go on without the Internet will teach them that they too can live a life away from technology," she says.
While I typically feel the pressure to be constantly available for my job, I know how important it is to set boundaries for work time and family time. When my children look to me, I don't want them to see me always looking down at my phone.
5. Don't be afraid to be the bad guy
Lastly, being a parent in the digital age is hard work. In many ways, I see social media use as a new drug addiction for parents to battle. If your child's social media activities are harmful to his or her wellbeing, you need to intervene. Period. I know those weeks are incredibly difficult when you take your child's phone away or disconnect the Internet. However, when the safety and happiness of your child are at stake, you need to follow your gut and do whatever you can.