We often hear parents of youngsters complain that the Internet and social media have resulted in depravity, distraction, low self-esteem, anxiety, addiction and depression among the youth. But is this over-reaction? Being a parent of an adolescent myself, I often wonder at the reality of the fragile young psyche and the misrepresentation of the digital native in her natural habitat. While my young ward undoubtedly experiences distractions, insecurities and doubts, those are characteristics of the age, and not really caused by the Internet or social media – having grown up in the pre-digital era, such detractions were part of my own youth as well.
- Lakshmi, a Mobicip blogger and co-author of this article.
So, where does the truth lie? A preliminary google search spews an overwhelming number of articles that assert that social apps adversely affect lifestyle, health and mental poise, especially self esteem, among the young. But hidden among them are a few articles that contradict the same. The ratio of the the former to the latter does not reflect the results of a study by University of Salford that showed that only 50% of their 298 participants found social media detrimental to their sense of self worth. Research at the University of Georgia showed that social media sites may actually be boosting self-esteem by the feeling of connectedness to others and the possibility of controlling how one can be seen by others. Ideal to Real TODAY/AOL Body Image survey showed that 65% of teenage girls posting selfies on social media claimed that it boosts their confidence.
Why does the adult society believe that social media is harmful to the young mind? Adolescence is the age in which human beings find or seek to establish their place in society. Social media offers the scope of social connection and autonomy to meet the needs of the teen to “fit in”. Interestingly, adults have always been uncomfortable about letting go of “control” of the teen’s entry into social life, which has now extended into the arena of social media. To complicate matters, nostalgia, which is often a seed of memory surrounded by the cotton candy of wishful thinking and imaginary romanticizing of social media, causes adults to idealize their own childhood as being rosier and safer than the digitally mediated age of their wards, associated with social, intellectual and moral decline.
Today, teens use social media tools exactly as their parents and grandparents used drive-ins, parks, school yards and malls to congregate. The online spaces that are populated by bullies and sexual predators are merely reflections of real life bullies and sexual predators who were (and are?) found in drive-ins, parks, school yards and malls. Thus, while these are not issues that should be ignored, it is unfair to attribute them to the proliferation of the Internet and social media; technology and media merely enhance visibility. We need to find ways to tackle these issues in the online world (e.g. using protective software), just as we sought ways to tackle them in the real world (“don’t hang around in seedy locales after dark” etc.)
Another area of discord between an adult and adolescents with respect to social media is the adult’s subscription to the what-you-see-is-what-you-get attitude. Judgments based on what a teen posts in a particular medium can be mis-representative of the teen, if not outright wrong. Teens use a range of social media services and their activity in a particular site is a reflection of what the site represents, and not entirely what the teen represents. As the adolescent transitions between different social sites, she manages the social dynamics of each site differently and no single site can be an accurate representation of who she is. Is this very different from offline life? How a teen (or indeed anyone) dresses up and behaves in school (or work) is usually starkly different from how she is at her cousin’s wedding, or a slumber party at a friend’s – a single ecosystem cannot define a person completely and attempting to do so would naturally lead to skirmishes.
Privacy is another conflicting sub-domain of the adolescent versus adult perception of social media. My 12-year old, has a public blog (under a pseudonym at my paranoiac insistence) but she also has a private blog that she shares with her close friends. Despite knowing the password to her blog account, I do not access the private blog, because I have not forgotten the rage in me many decades ago when my mother read the letters that my friends wrote to me; in hindsight, I realize that she did it to protect me from possible harm, but that did not justify her invasion of my privacy. Privacy is a vague concept especially in cyberspace due to the easy access and searchable nature of interactions. Danah Boyd, author of “It’s complicated – the social lives of networked teens” rightly describes online presence as “public by default, private through effort”. She further asserts that “the privacy strategies that teens implement are intended to counter the power dynamic that emerges when parents and other adults feel as though they have the right to watch and listen”. This again, is not new to the digital generation - teenagers have always harbored secrets from their parents, most of them have been harmless, unless the parent chose to act adversely over them. To arrive at a truce, adolescence must realize that privacy is a privilege that must be earned and the adult must realize that there is a definite line between protecting and social media mothering.
Perhaps the most common complaint that every parent of a teen has against social media is the apparent addiction of their wards to online social networking. In an age in which “free range parenting” has become an artificial and deliberate parenting option, many adolescents are stuck within four walls of buildings – either their homes or school, and SN sites offer the opportunity for them to hang out, gossip, flirt, and fit in - all natural activities of the age, which can expand to fill time. Quoting Boyd again, “Being ‘addicted’ to information and people is part of the human condition: it arises from a healthy desire to be aware of surroundings and to connect to society.” It is important for parents to know when the addiction becomes worrisome – when it interferes with the daily activities and mindset of the youngster, at which point it becomes imperative for the parent to step in and offer a hand to redemption.
It would be easier for both adults and adolescents to narrow the generation gap by embracing social media as an essential part of the digital world rather than resisting it. The youth must understand (as with youth of every generation) that their parents have “been there and done that”, albeit in different avatars, and using different tools, and can help them build roots to better use social media in life. Adults must learn (as with adults of every generation) to let go and allow the adolescent to sprout wings. Such mutual respect and understanding can help heal the rifts that exist among many parents and children with respect to social media and allow a healthier perspective to all concerned.
Writing credit: Co-authored by Lakshmi, a Mobicip blogger and researcher who reflects upon the interplay of the internet and life.
Mobicip is the creator of the most powerful and extensive internet safety software for tablets, smartphones and computers in households today. Learn more at www.mobicip.com.