Have you ever wondered how social media is influencing, and affecting, the lives of teens? If you are a parent, we are guessing YES! Major kudos to Anderson Cooper and his 360 team who explored just that in their CNN Special #Being13: Inside The Secret World Of Teens. Did you know that teens today are the first generation to have been exposed to social media for their entire lives? An area, as Anderson Cooper points out, that has had very little research.
What struck us most in this special was the enormity and power of social media, the influence it holds over teens in how they live their lives and establish self worth. From the secret language they don't want their parents and teachers to understand to the barometer of likeability they hold themselves and others to, to the frequency they check their accounts (100 times a day!). Then there is the language, the judgment and the shame -- "I don't like dealing with things face to face because it is really easy to hide behind your phone and on face to face, like you have to deal with the other person" and the addiction -- "I would rather not eat for a week then have my phone taken away. It's really bad."
We couldn't help but think these teens, and all those who are following after them, are part of the largest social experiment that has happened in our lifetime, if not forever. What kind of long-term affect will this medium have on our societies, families and emerging leaders?
We are only just beginning to understand the role social media is playing in the lives of our young and the power it holds over them. To make matters even more interesting, parents are navigating with their children in uncharted waters, unaware of or struggling to ensure their kids are safe in an ever increasingly public world. This challenge is enormous for parents, particularly as there are no reference points, no past experience upon which they can draw to help them understand the new landscape in which their kids live.
At the end of the special, the psychologist and sociologist who had been involved in the project provided their recommendations for what parents can do. They recommended parents continue to talk to their kids and get their own social media accounts so they understand what their kids are involved in and how each platform works.
While we feel this is sound advice, we couldn't help but wonder what does that look like? Based on this special, it doesn't sound like there is a current conversation to continue. So then what do parents say and where do parents start? Given the extreme lengths teens go to hold their public space "private," the challenges parents have always faced connecting with their teens, and how much teens love to "talk" -- while important, the idea of "talk to your teens" can feel overwhelming, pointless and the hardest place to start.
So we wondered, what if we replaced the word "talk" with "get curious"? What would it be like to say to parents: "Hey parents, get curious with your teens." When we are curious we are open, we are interested, we learn, we listen and we understand. Isn't that what we are asking parents to do in order to support their teens? Maintain an open dialogue with their kids to learn from them, better understand them so we can help support them? We believe the only way parents can do this is by being curious.
4 Steps To Curious And Connected Conversations With Your Teen:
1. Listen: Be present, pay attention, and actively listen to your teen -- it is amazing how much you can learn. They desire your undivided attention the same way you desire theirs. To help you actively listen, ABSORB what they are saying. If you find yourself wanting to tell, fix or solve -- pause and come back to actively listening to your teen and their perspective. You may not agree with what they are saying, and that is OK. Just listen to learn and better understand them.
2. Be Open: When we aren't open we judge, which narrows and closes down a conversation limiting our ability to learn from and understand others. Judging also leads to blaming and shaming -- don't believe us, talk to your teen about judgment and read comment feeds, you will see what we mean. Based on #Being13: Inside The Secret Lives Of Teens, it appears teens today have enormous peer pressures, far greater than any generation that has gone before. Be open to learning from them and their experience. This supports reflection, honesty and respect -- all of which lead to understanding.
3. Ask don't tell: Parents love to tell! And there is nothing teens hate more than being told what to do. Rather than tell your teen what they should do with social media, be curious and ask about their experience. Seek to learn and better understand how it works and the role it plays in their daily life. Focus on using questions that begin with 'how' and 'what', this will open up the conversation creating opportunities for exploration and discovery that lead to greater understanding. With greater understanding you can begin to collaborate and create a role for social media that meets the expectations of everyone concerned.
4. Test Assumptions: Most parents assume they know what their teens experience is like -- we were once teens too, right? Sadly, no parent can relate to the experience of their teen from when they were the same age, nor can they assume they understand it. Rarely are our assumptions right and assumptions lead to conflict. Test each assumption you have so you can better understand what your teen's real experience is. You can do this by using "how" and "what" questions. If you get stuck thinking of a question 'tell me more' is a great way to keep learning and stop assuming.
Remember, teens do what we do not what we say. Learning how to deal with another person face to face in real time begins with you. Being curious with your teen to maintain an open dialogue, with a focus on learning to understand, will have a far greater impact than anything you tweet or tell them.
Kathy Taberner and Kirsten Taberner Siggins are a mother/daughter communication consulting team with a focus on curiosity and founders of the Institute Of Curiosity. Their book The Power Of Curiosity: How To Have Real Conversations That Create Collaboration, Innovation and Understanding (Morgan James 2015) gives parents or leaders (or both) the skills and the method to stay curious and connected in all conversations, even in conflict.