The Problem with Social Media Parenting

In a recent tragedy, a teenage girl got behind the wheel of her car, with her best friend in the passenger seat, and hit the “Facebook Live” button. An accident occurred, and the two girls died in the crash. As the story played out in multiple outlets across social media, people were quick to judge and criticize.

How could they be so stupid?
It’s arrogance! They are so self-centered!
Why didn’t their parents teach them not to do this?

As I scrolled through some of the responses, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the fact that this tragic loss for two families was quickly reduced to “stupidity” and “ignorance,” and that there wasn’t much chatter about the obvious: Perhaps this incidence of “teen arrogance” might have something to do with growing up on display.

Even if you don’t fall into the trap of obsessive timeline photo posting (Jenny lost another tooth!), all kids today are affected by social media parenting. And believe me, I’m not judging you if you are a frequent picture poster. I’ve been there. When I first joined Facebook, I felt an immediate relief. I no longer had to create and e-mail those time-consuming Shutterfly photo albums (and fight my Wi-Fi to upload more than one photo at a time). With the click of a button, I could share heartwarming parenting moments with faraway family and friends. Genius! But when my work life crept into my personal life, and my kids grew out of the toddler years, I suddenly decided to stop that train.

Parenting in the age of social media is tricky business. On the one hand, parents use social media to get support and connect with other parents, to ask for advice, and to seek help with parenting dilemmas. They also use it to unwind. Recent Pew Research statistics show that 74 percent of parents who use social media get support from friends, and 59 percent of parents using social media have come across useful parenting information. There are clear benefits to connecting with other parents, and emotional support through some of the rocky parenting moments is just a status update away. There are even private groups that serve a wide variety of needs—some with experts on hand to answer questions and offer resources.

On the downside, kids are always on display. When they’re babies and toddlers, it feels harmless enough because parents tend to share their highlight reels (you know, the holiday-card-perfect moments?) although some take a different approach and showcase their lows, repackaged as “stop-acne-meds.com” (the screaming toddlers falling apart in the middle of the mall). As girls grow and begin to understand that many of those must-have pictures are actually being shared with other parents, the dynamic shifts in one of two possible directions: Either they get in on the posing and posting (“How many likes did my video get?”) or they attempt to get away from it (they avoid photos as much as possible and might even have a meltdown if that’s what it takes).

I find that it’s difficult to get through to parents that we all need to be more careful about what and how much we post about our kids. What seems cute or funny to us might actually be downright embarrassing to our girls, and you can’t account for what other parents will do. For example, one girl was positively furious because her mom shared a story about her on Facebook. It was a perfectly harmless story, but two other mothers shared the story with their daughters, and by the time she returned to school the following Monday, they were retelling the story to two other girls. A harmless story about silly family antics morphed into public humiliation for a sixth-grade girl because her mother couldn’t resist looking for a laugh on social media. It doesn’t seem fair, does it? And what kind of an example does that set?

A recent study of 249 pairs of parents and their children (between the ages of 10 and 17) showed that twice as many children as parents wanted rules on what parents can share online. Kids communicated that they feel like over-sharing (particularly on Facebook) is embarrassing, and they’re frustrated that parents won’t stop.

It’s difficult to find balance when it comes to parenting in the age of social media. When parents bury their heads in the sand and completely ignore it, their girls outpace them and don’t get the guidance they need, but when parents put girlhood on display, girls can suffer negative (unintended) consequences. What my work with girls teaches me over and over again is that we have to keep trying until we figure this out. The landscape of technology is always changing, and it isn’t going anywhere. It’s up to us to listen to our girls and do our best to stay one step ahead so that we can guide them. It’s hard enough to be a girl in the age of social media; the last thing our daughters need is mom or dad making it worse for them by engaging in accidental (or not) public humiliation. They need boundaries and values across all domains, including social media.

Excerpted from NO MORE MEAN GIRLS: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls by Katie Hurley with the permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright© 2018 by Katie Hurley

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