When I was a teen I used to stretch the kitchen phone cord into the pantry, close the door as tightly as possible without cutting the connection, sit down on the floor next to the flour and pancake mix, call my best friend and say whatever I wanted. Those days seem gone, and they have taken privacy with them.
I find myself mourning that loss of privacy for our young people, and I’m left wondering how they can safely find that moment with a trusted friend to be just a little bad, a little irreverent. On social media, the roar of exposure can be loud, and there are no safeguards whether you are 12 or 50. Whatever someone posts lives longer than Twinkies, and nothing really escapes scrutiny.
But that’s not what our children believe, no matter how many times you tell them not to post anything they don’t want their grandparents to see. For an upcoming workshop on social media that several of our juniors are leading for the sixth grade, the juniors first sent a questionnaire to their younger peers to see what questions they had. The first question was, “if my app says it’s private, is it?”
The answer is no, always no, and, indeed, this reality can come at a cost. If social media is your singular way to be in the world, then where are those “off-the-record” moments that help you work out some of the rights and wrongs of growing up? And as social media lives in the land of more is more and encourages fast and sometimes thoughtless spontaneity, the result is not only volume, but also something far different from the relational intent sought after. The one-on-one becomes the one-on-hundreds, void of the personal and authentic, almost free from ownership. Until it isn’t.
And then there is the hyperhappiness that thrives on social media, carrying with it a pretty hefty price tag of hyperbole. The stage-crafted joy of selfies and plates of wonderful food at every fun gathering can make young scrollers believe that everyone is happier than they are, and happier all the time. Happiness, then, becomes not a condition, but a constant. As one college freshman alum wisely told me, “I don’t believe all of those Instagrams; not everyone can be that happy with their roommates.” And this revelation was from a 19-year-old. What if you were 12?
Rather than recognize the stagecraft of social media, they begin to curate their own hyperhappiness, writing a competitive narrative full of joy they probably don’t feel. The huge irony here is that young people can spend so much time creating an image, that they can only imagine a sense of self through others. How many “likes” did I get today? How much does the world like me? Finally, then, this ceaseless self-focus might not have much a self in it at all.
Recently at one of my senior suppers at my apartment, I brought up the topic of social media, sharing with them some of this thinking. They had a lot to say. One told of how when she checks her social media pages, the content always seems “so fake,” and “so far away from what I really am.” Another said that she “hates texting,” and does so only for necessary details of travel. One said that when she becomes a parent, she is going to try to let her child, “be a kid for a much longer time,” meaning no social media. “I used to hang out with friends outside and play,” she said, “now middle schoolers stay inside and make videos to post.” Another poignantly said that social media makes “your simple happiness worthless.” Several of them said that they now restrict their own time on social media, and they set an app to help them keep their promises to themselves, “It’s terrifying to see how long I used to be on social media.”
Parenting and social media calls for a delicate balance, and the variables are legion. Are there older siblings who are already on social media? What’s the perfect time for owning a smartphone? How long should they be on that phone I’ve given them? I could go on. Piloting the navigation takes time, discussion and lots and lots of back and forth. The stakes are high, but the promises of developing smarter and more thoughtful users of social media, as with the seniors at my dinner, are even higher. I think you just have to keep talking with your children about it…a lot.
During our discussion at dinner, one senior received a text from a friend noting: “Chinese. Help.” Two other seniors, best friends, shared that they FaceTime each other almost every night, talking sometimes for hours. While they told me this, they were holding hands. So it seems there is a pantry out there after all: only in this closet you can see one another as you talk late into the night with a trusted friend.