An article reporting some research on the impact of Facebook on teenagers' self-esteem in my local newspaper caught my eye recently. And to be honest, it confirmed everything we old fogeys had suspected all along about the impact of social media. The question is, what do we as parents and grandparents, aunties, uncles and friends do to help our young folk?
The Upshot of the Article
The article, entitled Under the sway of social media has this to say:
The more time teenage girls spend on social media – caught in a world of competition for likes on Facebook, posting weight-loss progress selfies on Instagram – the more likely they are to be dissatisfied with their bodies and have low self-esteem.
It goes on to report a study of girls who were first interviewed in years 8 and 9, and then again in years 10 and 11, which asked them about their social media habits and self-esteem. 90% of them had a Facebook account with an average of 475 friends each. All of them were uploading pictures of themselves onto the internet. Over the course of the study, the time they spent on social media had blown out from one and three-quarter hours to two and a half hours a day.
That by the way is fully 10% of their time each and every day!!
This is what the research concluded:
Even though 80 per cent of the girls surveyed were classified as normal weight, 46 per cent said they were dissatisfied with how much they weighed.
“Time spent on social network sites was related to lower self-esteem, body-esteem, sense of identity and higher depression,” Amy Slater from Flinders University’s school of psychology said.
This is definitely an article that everyone with teenagers in their life should read.
So What's Changed?
Back in my day as a teen, my parents were deeply concerned over the corrupting effects of Start Trek (Series 1) in my life, and banned me from watching it.
Hard to believe I know. But each generation of parents it seems, finds some social demon that they are convinced is going to destroy their children’s hearts, brains, moral fibre and lives.
So, are we just repeating that cyclical phenomenon with social media? Is this just our generation’s version of Star Trek demonisation?
I don’t think so. Because something has fundamentally changed. There is a major discontinuity that we now have to navigate our way through and that discontinuity is this:
Our teenagers are now connected to their social network 24/7. Most of them sleep with their mobile phones. And so they discover who they are these days much more through their social network than from their parents.
And that’s a profound shift. We all know how cruel teenagers can be to one another. If you’re not one of the “beautiful set”, you’re nobody. And we all know how immature teenagers are – that’s par for the course. So if your kids and mine are listening more to immature teenagers than to loving parents in order to discover their identity, the Houston, we have a problem.
And that’s exactly what’s happening. Back in our day, when we came home from school, we were disconnected from our friends, and connect to our family and in particular our parents. Loving parents had at least equal airplay in our lives as teenagers , at a time when we were establishing our identities and sense of self-esteem.
Yet these days, teens come home and often withdraw to their bedrooms, where most of them have access to high-speed internet and cable television where they continue to be bombarded with all the wrong messages.
So, what’s the answer?
Now is Not The Time to Abdicate
The answer is not to demonise social media. It’s here to stay. And the answer is not to throw our hands in the air and give up - abdication of our loving, parental responsibility is never going to be the answer.
Another article on the role of parents in the social media lives of their children sheds an interesting light on this. It reports a different study involving 491 families with teenagers aged from 12 to 17, (the majority 14 to 16). The participants were from Seattle, USA and selected randomly. This is what it found:
Parents who connect with their kids on Facebook and other social networks are likely to build a stronger connection with them in real life. These teenagers also have higher rates of “pro social behaviour”, meaning they are more generous, kind and helpful to others, according to the study by Brigham Young University.
“Social networks give an intimate look at your teenager’s life,” said Sarah Coyne, lead author of the study. “It lets parents know what their kids are going through, what their friends think is cool or fun, and helps them feel more connected to their child. It gives a nice little window into what is going on.”
The answer isn’t to abandon them, the answer is to join them.
Hmm. That can be a touchy thing. Most teenagers won’t want their parents peering into their SM-lives … that is unless they already have a deep relationship with them.
So, maybe liking each other on Facebook isn’t an option for every parent-teen relationship. But engagement … that’s a whole different thing.
I had to be dragged kicking and screaming onto Facebook – a lot of us are like that.
But maybe, just maybe, it’s time for those with teenagers in their lives to find creative ways of engaging with them in their space on their terms, rather than abandoning them to a life where they establish their self-image by staring into those side-show mirrors that distort what they see.
Because their emotional wellbeing for the rest of their lives, utterly depends on discovering who they are, by hearing it from the loving parents God gave them for exactly that purpose!
Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. (Psalm 127:3)
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)
Read more from Berni Dymet in his blog A Different Perspective.