Navigating parenting with children in today’s world of technology is not without its challenges. As my 14 year old displays certain behaviors, both her dad and I ask: Is this normal teenager stuff? Irritability, carbohydrate binging, anger, low energy, negative outlook, low self-esteem at times, disorganization, and an overall sense that she is always half listening. With exasperated sighs we wonder if anyone else is dealing with these symptoms? Armed with my background in Psychology and my awareness as a tech entrepreneur, I wanted to get to the bottom of her symptoms. Is this normal teenager behavior or is there something more going on?
Negative effects of social media
Recent reports have discussed the impacts of social media on teens. The statistics are devastating when you read the article in The Atlantic. We have tech giants now reporting that we “did it on purpose”. Many years ago I saw the wild love affair we were having with social media likes and displaying our life to the world. I immediately wondered what this would do to children? I wondered about my fellow parents, my friends, and looking at my babies 7 years ago I knew I had to get to the bottom of it. Yet even with all that I learned, had navigated professionally in the world of tech, nothing could prepare me for the windfall of social media on my own child.
Our child is in grade 9 and reading this statistic, alarmed me and also made me completely ashamed: “Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media.” - The Atlantic. With a heavy heart I knew my child was in this statistic whether we wanted to admit it or not.
Most of the time I am ill-prepared for effective solutions to help her navigate her digital world. I cycle through my parent guilt and talk with my ex-husband at length about what is happening to our child. A year ago she was competing top level in tennis and today she barely wants to leave her room, absorbed by Instagram and Snapchat. I think back to my years as a teenager, some similar symptoms for sure but there is a whole new level of shock to the pervasiveness of this technology.
As her parent, I know it is time for an intervention. But how does one go about an intervention in social media? I decided we must look no further than to the drug addiction guidelines for interventions (yes, I think it’s that serious). Not to amp up the fear mongering around social media but we wanted practical solutions to navigate this new frontier of pervasive social media on teenagers.
Growing up as a child of an alcoholic I was put through a mild version of an alcohol intervention and also participated in Alateen. A place for children of alcoholics to understand the depth of the impact having an addictive parent is on your sense of self. These early frameworks are proving to be valuable sources of information as I navigate my own child’s addiction to social media. Yes, I am also saying that out loud. First step in addiction awareness is to not deny the existence of the problem but to face it head on and say “Yes, we do have a problem.”
In a tear filled conversation, my former husband and I decide to stage an intervention on our teenager. First step: owning our own contribution to the way she sees herself and her world. We are part of the wounds she has within her young soul. We are part of the problem, as is technology, but now we can be part of the solution. There is hope and here’s what we did. Parents, please use this as a guide and not a professional ‘how to’ solution. We are just parents, just like you.
We decide to stage an intervention and this is our plan:
1. Social Media Detox: As we sat our daughter down, we spoke to her about her symptoms (anger, anxiety, irritability, carbohydrate binging, low sense of self, body image distortion). We told her that we felt social media was playing a significant role in the exasperation of these typical teenage symptoms. We implemented a no phone rule for 6 weeks while she detoxes her brain from the environment. With a very big tearful moment she tells us that if she is not on Snapchat she will lose all her friends. Very long, heavy sigh here, we are officially ruining her life! Yet we persevere. We are her parents and by golly we do know what is best. At this point, the famous line “when you know better, you do better” is running through my mind in Oprah’s fabulous voice. We can do this! “The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015.” - The Atlantic As her dad and I listened to her, she explained that normal texting does not happen, that they talk to each other through Snapchat. We agree that we will hold onto the phone and if her friends text her we will allow her to reply but then the phone comes back to us. She relents and agrees that a break from social media might be good for her.
The detox is so very important for all addictions as one needs to return to a normal state of being. The place you were before the addiction consumed your life. For my daughter, I believe in her heart lies a hopeful, optimistic, and loving soul. Her natural state is one who believes in dreams coming true, that her parents are not the enemy and that she is so much more than just her beauty. For her to understand the truth about herself she needs a definitive break from the pervasive and constant imagery that tells her something entirely different. That her worth lies not in the measurement of like buttons and boys asking for nudes but in so much more. Returning her to her natural state is a parent’s duty and obligation, even if she thinks we are ruining her life.
2. Road to Self-Love: Part of the deep understanding of technology and in particular social media addiction is the negative beliefs it places on our young children. At 14 years old, my daughter has a fragile sense of self. She is learning who she is in this big world and social media gives her such a narrow sense of who she is. Most of her identity is wrapped into the physical aspect of who she is. This impact has caused her to overanalyze her physical self and she is convinced that really provocative pictures are what make girls popular.
In another tearful admission, our daughter gives us a glimpse into her social media world. She talks about how bad Instagram ultimately makes her feel. She admits that it does not show anything that nurtures the other aspects of who she is: spiritual, mental, and emotional. The one dimensional aspect of social media is robbing kids of the complete picture of relationships and their sense of self in all four quadrants (mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual). As a result, kids are often ‘on the clock’ of social media, acutely aware that they need to respond, check in, and be inauthentic. This creates a panic state for most kids which escalates their anxiety and social pressure to be there.
On her self love maintenance plan we place the 4 quadrants of herself at the forefront and encourage our daughter to spend time in the next 6 weeks looking at all 4 aspects of who she is. Her ideas to nurture herself are interesting and also encouraging. She wants to read more, write in a journal, learn about God, workout with her dad, become a great basketball and volleyball player, and do more homework. Her self-love plan is for her, to nurture her, so that deep within herself she will know who she is and the opinion of others will hold less weight.
Why 6 weeks? During a detox time and learning new habits, it generally takes 6 weeks for new habits to take root into our being. We also want to support her on her journey so we are adopting our own self-love maintenance plans so we can combat this as a family. I am encouraged by her early enthusiasm but we will take this one day at a time.
3. Redefining Technology: Part of a detox plan is creating a new relationship with the substance/tool we have used to numb our feelings. For our daughter, how she views this tool is very warped. Believing that if she is not there to answer every message her friends will go away. Learning boundaries, learning she is enough, learning that a device does not give you a sense of self or friendships is a critical piece of the puzzle. The addictive aspect of social media is the false sense of power that we give a tool for communication. In the same vein as all drug addiction, we give these substances the power to rule our lives, believing we are not enough without the external substance.
Understanding healthy human boundaries and developing tools to increase your sense of worthiness are key parts of the addiction cycle. Three key steps in creating a new relationship:
- Write a goodbye letter: By stating your relationship, intentions, and boundaries you can take your power back. It may sound odd but it is establishing your relationship with technology and placing it back in the toolbox versus it taking over your life.
- Establish clear rules of engagement: Similar to a diet plan, we establish rules with said substances. For example, I will only check my messages after work. These rules give you protection and practice to establish new habits.
- Understand Thyself: Knowing your own weaknesses and tendencies around social media is so critical to establishing new relationships. Just like bad boyfriends, we decide to ‘not go there’ again. Protect yourself from your own weaknesses by getting very real with yourself.
For most of my adult life I have been closely linked to addiction awareness, education, and healing our deepest wounds. Understanding that all addictions lie in our wounds, in our worthiness is a painful reminder. As the parent of this beautiful daughter, in her 14 years on this planet she has experienced wounds. This is real, this is authentic, and this is the path out of her pain. My job as her parent is to a) own that I may have caused part of this wound and b) help her identify the wound and give her tools to heal that wound. Healing this aspect of who we are is a lesson for all of us. Recognizing the role social media plays in wreaking havoc on our wounds can encourage all of us to heal, to look within, and to put technology back into a healthy perspective.
So will this work? Well, after 7 days into our intervention, my child is coming back! Yes, after just 7 days, she is softer, kinder, and more aware than she has been in months. She told me yesterday, “Mom I am feeling a whole lot better. Thank you for doing this for me.” For my fellow parents on this journey, stay strong, be persistent and most of all be kind with yourself. We are all in it together and WE CAN change this together.