Mar 2, 2023

teens and social

Thank goodness Jonathan Haidt, Jean Twenge, and others are continuing to sound the alarm about social media and teens. My hope is that their ever-growing document of good studies will turn the standard tide of opinion that “the data is mixed.” We’re getting far enough away from 2012 to have some real evidence: not just correlation but causation.

Our kids are 17, 14, and 12. The older two now have smart phones but no social media of any kind. Our youngest now has a smart watch. We made sure that our (two younger neurotypical) kids were running around town on their own, with friends and no technology, for years before introducing any devices. They rode the subway, played in the park, and we didn’t always know where they were. It was inconvenient for sure, given the uneven protocols for contemporary parenting. But they still walk to and from school alone and are outdoors and around town with friends, mostly unsupervised, after school — in person, face to face, doing the protracted and complicated and important work of adolescence, which is practicing friendship in real time.

And friendship, yes, involves a lot of texting for our 14 year old daughter. In Haidt’s evidence, there is a clear distinction between the mental health effects of screens generally (little effect) versus social media, where there are dramatic effects. It makes sense: Adolescents are supposed to be navigating the tricky waters of in-groups and out-groups, loyalty and affection, and they are necessarily slow at it, with halting missteps and near-constant awkwardness. At this point, I think it’s reasonable to say that texting is the acceptable social equivalent of the hours-long phone calls of my own growing-up. Social media is the unacceptable quantum-leap accelerator for all of these risky dynamics, with a lot of baked-in corporate incentives throughout.

The bottom line is this: We knew, even before the evidence became so clear, that we didn’t want our kids anywhere near social media till they were much older. And we also knew that kids pay attention to what parents do much more than what they say. So, in 2020, I got off all social channels (except for clunky old LinkedIn!). We love it this way: there’s no funny-meme sharing at our house from social. There’s no distracted replying to Wrong on the Internet folks on social. Not even a little. We have outlawed it for our kids and we can stand by our reasoning. And our kids have been just fine. Yes, our daughter appears to be the only one without social channels, and yes, she misses out on some exchanges. But she also surmises that she’s just as often missing unwanted drama! Her days are truly full of friendships, all unfolding at reasonable scale. She’s happy, connected, thriving. All three kids are. They may have troubles ahead, but it won’t be navigated on social media.