(left) daughter Audrey Boyce; (right) mother Leslie Kramer at the Strong International Museum of Play, 1/13/18 from If a flip phone is good enough for my senator, it’s good enough for me.
After several high-stakes congressional interrogations, unflattering portrayals on film, and personnel shake-ups within his company, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg does not possess the same idealism he started with. But he still views social media as a force for good in the world.
I can envision Zuckerberg employing the analogy of automobiles. Many people believed that they would mark the end of civility; that they would be a distraction, cause social anxiety, and impede sleep. Yet who can envision the world today without motorized transportation? Although Zuckerberg has acknowledged that there will be accidents and unintended consequences along the way, he ultimately views his creation as an indispensable tool of communication, commerce, and even democracy itself.
Zuckerberg, of course, has no shortage of incentives for taking this position, but that does not make social media necessary in our lives. It is important to remember that humans survived and progressed for thousands of years without it. And contrary to what he and his colleagues in the industry have stated on countless occasions, access to information is not inherently beneficial. The dictionary has information, but it can not tell someone how they should live their life. In other words, some experiences only become informative once someone has learned how to be wise enough to understand why.
More to the point, most of the information online is not only unnecessary, but misleading, intentionally divisive, and, as we are learning, manipulated by algorithms that even the web engineers who designed them cannot control. (On this matter, I highly recommend the new Netflix expose The Social Dilemma.)
Unmasking social media’s non-essentialness is of vital importance, especially to our children. The proportion of young people using online social networks in America exceeds 90%, and teens spend an average of more than 4 hours online every day.¹ According to one definitive survey in a reputable scientific journal, in just the five years between 2010 and 2015, “the number of US teens who felt useless and joyless surged 33%.” The same research showed that teen suicide attempts increased by 23%. The number of 13 to 18-year-olds who committed suicide surged 31%.²Who will find a cure to solve this public health crisis? Do not expect the dealers to reform. They are making a fortune off peddling our data to advertisers. Governments are in partnership with the tech giants, and schools and organized religions are toothless to stop it. The only institution that can save children from the throes of internet addiction is parenting — by parenting, I mean loving and supporting guardians of all sexual orientations and gender identities. As a father of two toddlers (4 and 2), I know firsthand the role I can play in limiting screen time. I also know the extreme challenges that parents face, but there are ways to fight back.
First and foremost, parents must set an example. Actions always speak louder than words. If parents are glued to the screen just as much as children are, what message does that send? One useful tip is to keep phones and devices away from the dinner table. Keep them from intimate spaces in general if you can. Do not go to bed with your phone and limit the number of times you check your email and other notifications throughout the day. Think critically about the sites you do visit and ask whether or not the information you are consuming makes you feel happier. Place time access restrictions on all devices in the home. Again, set a consistent example that they can follow, and do so with enthusiasm. In the words of Donna Wick, EdD, founder of Mind-to-Mind Parenting, “It’s not about taking the phone away or having a single conversation.” She says, “Parents need to be diligent about making sure kids are getting a dose of reality and need to model healthy behaviors.”³ Many teens, she says, never knew a world where social media didn’t exist, and for them, the things that happen online—slights, break-ups, likes, or negative comments—are very real. When you talk about social media make sure you’re really listening and be careful not to dismiss or minimize your teen’s experiences.
Secondly, parents must model what life can look like apart from screens. Take your children on field trips and spend more time at parks and museums. Craft with them, make art, and do things that require physical exertion and hands-on experience. Try out fun scientific experiments and invite them to think about going on adventures of the mind. Most importantly, play! “Almost all creativity,” Abraham Maslow once wrote, “involves purposeful play.” Make life exciting so children will want to experience it for themselves. I think most children resort to using their phones and devices out of boredom more than anything else.
In the end, it is about showing real love. Not the simulated version. Hold their hands and tell them how special they are. Wrestle with them and chase them around until they are fatigued with joy. Make them know that you are present and watching with the most careful devotion. Be there for them in a way that the computer can never be. We want our children to be happy and to grow into well adjusted adults. But they must know that we love them and that we are proud of them as they are—without a filter and imperfect in the most magical ways. If any more incentive is needed, remember what Nelson Mandela said. “History will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children.”
¹ Monica Anderson and Jingjing JIiang, Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018
² What is Digital Wellness?, Digital Wellness Hub
³ Rae Jacobson, Social Media and Self-Doubt, Child Mind Institute
ALSO ON TECHNOLOGY