Op-Ed: Parents, Kids and Social Media Apps: A Time to Teach

I wonder when social media apps are created, do the designers really think about the consequences of their latest innovation?

So it goes with Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and any number of social media apps that allow people to share, sometimes impulsively and without obvious consequence, parts of their lives normally reserved for more intimate conversations. Apps like these, intended for fun, are wreaking havoc on the social-emotional health of our kids.

The most recent example? Evanston Township High School pulled its varsity baseball team from the state playoffs because of a sexting scandal that involved the dissemination of inappropriate pictures to students. One impulsive text and a positive, valuable and rewarding experience is wasted.

Technology isn’t going away, and the consequences of bad decision making when using social media isn’t always this harsh — but the results of even casual use, such as that of Instagram, can still hurt. We can’t realistically keep our kids from using apps, but parents need to protect and educate their kids about the dangers of social media, while teaching them to safely incorporate them into their lives. If we teach them how to use social media correctly at beginning, kids can better police their own behavior as they get older.

It starts in middle school, or even younger. A 12-year-old girl lounges on the sofa with her parents. She incessantly checks Instagram for updates and discovers one of her best friends hosting a sleepover party without her. Suddenly feeling left out and dejected, she swears she will get revenge and post her own exclusive party pics.

Apps like Instagram have become must-haves for tweens and teens. If they “follow” each other, they can see, comment on and “like” each others’ photos. Just like Facebook and Twitter, the number of ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ a member of Instagram receives quantifies their popularity, creating a new measure of status. Like the designer labels we wore as teens, these apps are the new way to create exclusivity and fight for social rank.

By purposely leaving each other out of photos, defriending or blocking each other during a fight, or circulating embarrassing or inappropriate photos, the kids participate in social-media bullying. Because of its rapid dissemination and wide distribution, bullying online can prove much more damaging than traditional bullying. Kids’ anxiety about the possibility of being excluded and the public humiliation it brings, has bred a new condition called FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.”

As a mother, how can I protect my kids from social media bullying and FOMO? I want to encourage them to develop familiarity and comfort with new technology and popular social media to succeed in the future. Once they leave home, they will be immersed in a “virtual society.” I want to teach them to use it responsibly before they become independent.

I could forbid them from using Instagram, but that won’t put an end to the mean behavior. Exclusion will not stop. Those of us who grew up before social media experienced the same feelings of isolation and hurt when we realized we were left out. Melissa Novack, L.C.S.W., co-owner of Inpower Therapy, a practice that provides psychotherapy for tweens, teens and women, explains, “Instagram won’t go away, so we have to teach our kids to use it responsibly.”

I decided to institute social media etiquette as a household rule — consider the audience, and put themselves in their followers’ shoes. It’s imperative that they understand that there is no privacy online, and anything they post or text could follow them for years to come. Likewise, I teach them that they cannot define themselves by their fleeting images or hurtful comments on Instagram.  “You have got to get your identity from something stable,” Dr. Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center writes in his blog. “Your identity cannot be wrapped up in the number of times you are noticed, liked or validated online.”

Encouraging our kids not to let social media take over their lives can also help. Novack suggests we “teach them to detach themselves from their technology.” We all need to engage in “old-fashioned” activities. When we do detach, we should put our phone somewhere where we don’t see it. The physical act of putting it away gives both us and kids more control of our virtual lives.

How can you teach kids to detach? Model it. You might be surprised with the results. When I asked my daughter how she deals with feeling excluded on Instagram, she shrugged and said, “I put my phone down and do something else to forget about it. I don’t always invite everyone, and I can’t always expect to be invited either.”