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Parenting the Instagram generation
April 14, 2018, 2:58 pm
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Can kids today be persuaded to actually talk rather than text? Can they be encouraged to let go of the virtual world and engage in the real one? Can they stop posting selfies long enough to think of someone else? The answer is yes. But there are bound to be some anxious moments for parents along the way.

Since it debuted the device a decade ago, Apple has sold more than 1.2 billion iPhones. Facebook reached the mark of 2 billion users per month in June. Together, both companies have shaped an entire generation of young people tethered to their devices.

Today, getting a smartphone is a rite of passage for tweens and teens. It is arguably more important to them than having a driver’s license or voting. Signing up for Instagram is another milestone for many kids. It is often the beginning of their digital self-expression, and the way they stay connected with friends.

Downloading Snapchat is yet another marker on the path to growing up; the popular app lets users exchange messages and images that self-destruct within seconds, and is the digital equivalent of the first date – that moment of freedom when kids begin a life without parents listening in.

According to a recent poll, Instagram and Snapchat are now the most popular apps among teens in the US, with 76 percent of kids aged13 to 17 using Instagram and 75 percent using Snapchat.

But the ubiquity of social media does not mean kids begin their digital journey knowing how to navigate the complexities of constant connectivity. There is no guidebook. There are often few limits. Social media does not come with training wheels – for kids or parents. As a result, sometimes kids get it right and sometimes wrong. Really wrong.

The news is full of troubling stories about teens and technology. In July, reports surfaced about a mysterious online game called the Blue Whale Challenge in which several apparent participants killed themselves, some broadcasting their suicides online. In the US, police have busted up groups of middle-schoolers swapping nude photos of underage female classmates. Intense cases of cyberbullying have led to victims taking their own lives.

And the web is often especially cruel to young girls, subjecting them to sexism, misogyny, and harassment. All of this is deeply disturbing. In addition, according to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that aims to help guide kids and parents through today’s media landscape, the average teen spends nine hours a day consuming media for enjoyment, most of which is on a screen. And tweens (ages 8 to 12) use media almost seven hours a day.

But all too often parents who complain that their kids are addicted to social media have trouble controlling their own technology use. Nine out of 10 times, the kids are learning from their parents.

Also, the culture of online celebrity has spawned a growing number of otherwise average – and nonfamous – families who have essentially taken to filming much of their daily lives and posting it to YouTube. These so-called vloggers are vying for celebrity status on the web, and the advertising dollars that can come from amassing millions of subscribers.

Posting your family’s life on the web for the world to see – and comment on – may seem extreme to many people, but apparently not to the web loggers. Experts say there are many different ways to be a good digital parent. The keyis to remember that it is not about the technology. It is about the values and baseline levels of respect.

Technology does not change your standards and values. Other parents place a premium on talking to their kids about social media rather than curtailing their use of devices and apps.

They prioritize openness about social media, over erecting a virtual fence.  However, when you talk to teens, almost all dispute their parents’ assumptions that social media has become their entire world in the first place. They chafe at the assertion that teens prefer digital connections to personal ones. Kids are living out loud in a digital culture.

Social media naturally heightens the challenges associated with adolescence. Teens are telling us they want parents to trust their use of social media and give them freedom to explore, take risks, and make mistakes.

Parents have to realize that at some point, kids have to decide for themselves where to draw the digital line. Some are already pulling back from total immersion. New studies show that at least 58 percent of teens who use social media were curtailing their time online, in part because of parental strictures but also because they simply wanted a break.

Dangers do exist online, of course. But experts say the key is not to overreact and place too many restrictions on technology. It is far better to understand social media and how children are actually using it.

Parents need to realize that our children and future generations have tremendous opportunities in store for them, and not in spite of the digital age, but because of it.

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