Parents quite understandably worry about the gap that appears, sometimes rather suddenly, between them and their child during the adolescent years. We pride ourselves in the positive connection we’ve enjoyed with our offspring during their primary school years and sometimes well into secondary school. Perhaps we think we are different to other parents: ‘My daughter won’t be like that with me; we have a great relationship!’ And then it hits – unannounced and with no forewarning. She is suddenly sullen, with one word answers, claiming there is nothing actually troubling her and looking exasperated at the suggestion that she is behaving in any way differently to the way she behaved yesterday, let alone for the last 14 years!
These days, more often than not, she will be looking down at her phone whilst uttering the single syllable retort to your polite inquiry. She will probably also be looking at it when you pass by her room in the evening and when she is sitting on public transport on her way to and from school. So it is natural that parents have, in recent years, come to place a lot of the blame for their teenager’s monosyllabic grunts on the phone and, more specifically, social media.
On closer examination, however, social media is probably not the cause of your daughter’s change in mood. This is far more likely to be a direct result of her brain’s pre-determined programme of reorganisation to get it ready to cope with adulthood.
Our children are hard-wired to push away from us during adolescence and turn toward their friends for the support they previously sought from their parents.
Enter Social Media. The designers of social media platforms have skilfully tapped into exactly what it is that teenagers crave: constant contact with their friends. Teenagers have always been addicted to their friends; they are desperate to feel connected. I recall clearly the deep sense of satisfaction I felt from gassing on the phone with a school friend for an hour, having just returned from a full day at school when I was in her presence all day long. Somehow, connecting in that way, out of school hours, gave me reassurance that I was important in her life; she was willing to spend that time. We would also go round to each other’s houses in a group, just to ‘hang out’, doing not much of anything but reinforcing the bonds of our friendship and co-dependence, allowing ourselves to separate from our parents and to form our new tribe. Somehow, for teenagers, they rarely feel that they have spent too much time together; typically they crave more and more of this type of contact, however they can get it, and social media platforms are now perfect for keeping this going, every hour of every day.
In Lisa Damour’s excellent guide for parents of teenage girls, entitled ‘Untangled’, she writes that research suggests that what happens online tends to mirror what is happening off-line. When things are going well, digital technology allows teens to feel positive in their relationships, reinforcing their connections in a supportive and happy way. However, when things are rather worse, digital interactions can undermine teenagers’ ability to have meaningful in-person connections, amplifying any negative aspects of their relationships and crushing anything other than the most robust self-esteem.
In either case, research does suggest that intense use of digital technology can impair the development of social skills. This seems to be down to a number of factors. It is partly because of the clunky, un-nuanced ways in which teens tend to interact on social media; choosing words carefully is rarely a priority. Blunt statements, acronyms, emojis and memes stand in the place of sensitive, nuanced and expressive language developed through the eye contact and body language of face-to-face interactions. Efforts to curate a particular, stylised image of oneself can leave young people nervous of ever being caught being ‘natural’ or responding to events or conversations in real time. It is also the case that social media has contributed to teenagers just not ‘hanging out’ like they used to. Young people are sometimes overscheduled, with very little down-time to enjoy in a relaxed way with friends. They also tend to rely on social media to stay connected so, instead of going round to each other’s homes after school, they go home alone, to their often empty house, and then make the connections they are craving in the digital space, either with friends they know in the real world or, more worryingly, with people they know only online. This is not a good replacement for their developing teenage brains that need to learn how to communicate with others in an adult way, how to make reasonable judgements and how to be empathetic.
So, what is to be done? It has long been the role of adults to despair of the lives that teenagers lead, always seemingly different to the one led by their parents and teachers and always engaging in something seen to be harmful and scary.
We need to talk about it. We should not berate or belittle, we should not devalue or patronise; we should just talk. We cannot pretend that our girls will somehow not be drawn in by the addictive properties purposefully built in to all social media platforms. We also cannot pretend that our girls can somehow buck the trend and feel fully connected with their peer group whilst not being included in the online goings on. Whilst a few girls may take this path, it would not be realistic or reasonable to expect teenagers simply to turn their backs on social media. Social media is where it’s all happening for their peer group and they probably do (at a certain stage) need to be there to feel included and plugged in to their tribe.
When our daughters started walking by themselves to the corner shop and then to school alone, we talked with them. We discussed potential dangers and highlighted ways in which they could keep themselves safe: waiting for the green man, not stopping to chat with strangers, not getting their money out in plain view, etc. We also kept an eye, from a distance, and we kept an eye on each other’s children too, perhaps intervening where a breach was so dangerous that it warranted a very firm message.
We must accept that social media will be part of her life.
We need to do the same with social media. We must accept that it will be part of her life; it is a fundamental part of current teenage existence and we would do her a disservice if we didn’t support her in learning how to be on social media safely. She needs to understand what dangers exist and how to mitigate those dangers through boundaries set by you, combined with her own self-regulation and self-care because, eventually, she needs to be able to handle it on her own. She also needs to know that people are watching, at a distance. It would be perfectly reasonable for you to expect to be able to look in on her accounts now and then, particularly when she is younger. It can also be helpful to let others in your daughter’s circle know that you would like to hear from them if they see your daughter doing something online that would put her in danger or that is simply unkind.
In school, we spend a lot of time in our pastoral curriculum educating girls on their use of social media. We explore issues from online grooming to fake news. We talk about online bullying and digital by-standing and we talk about the permanence of images posted to social media, including the dangers and illegality of sexting and the reality of future employers being able to see one’s online footprint from the teenage years. Girls know that we are often alerted to goings on from WhatsApp, Instagram or SnapChat and that concerned pupils will come forward with screen shots of friends putting themselves in danger, expressing worrying thoughts or treating each other poorly. It is important that they know how easily we can find out what they are up to online; this is the reality of living in the digital world and the sooner they register this principle, the sooner they can start to behave responsibly and sensibly.
Some really progressive movements have been taken hold through social media campaigns. I’m thinking of #MeToo and Greta Thunberg. Young people have the opportunity to learn about and be part of great waves of positive change and to pass their passions onto others in creative and convincing ways. They can use group chats to plan events and to share great or funny news and they can use creative platforms to express themselves and share their creativity with others. Many students have news feeds on their phones, keeping them up to date with all the latest headlines and many also have mental health apps that support meditation or provide words of wisdom in a difficult moment.
Our girls can learn to navigate mindfully around the potential pitfalls.
There is a lot of good that can come out this device we call a ‘smartphone’ and this is why we all have them! With some concerted training, some good role modelling and some initially tight (and then gradually loosening) boundaries, our girls can learn to navigate mindfully around the potential pitfalls whilst getting the very best out of the wealth of resources and opportunities online. The key message must always be that the digital world should be complementary to the real world – not instead of it.
Blog post written by Ms Brass, Senior Deputy Head, who heads up the pastoral programme at South Hampstead.