Social Media Worries for Your Kids? Put Your Own Phone Down First

You can't teach great behavior if you won't follow it yourself

Kids may feel less satisfied with their lives after spending just an hour a day on social media, according to a December study published by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics in Bonn, Germany.

The study suggests the probability that kids ages 10 to 15 would be “completely satisfied with life overall” went down by about 14 percent — “not a trivial effect,” noted researchers.

This jibes with one of the biggest concerns that I hear from parents: the excessive use of social media by their children and the potential damage it might cause. It’s frightening. Parents won’t know the cumulative effects of social media on their children’s lives for years to come.

“Teens can have an unhealthy need for validation from peers on social media.”

Virtual communication is not nearly equal to face-to-face communication, and the image-driven obsession of putting forth an “edited” version of oneself can potentially affect both a child’s identity and his or her self-worth. Popularity comes down to the number of “likes” or social media “friends” he or she is attracting.

Another concern is the sheer amount of time wasted on social media — time that could be used for so many other productive activities. Two friends of mine, Jay Hauck and Thomas Lloyd of Chevy Chase, Maryland, recently started a Catholic Men’s Bible study and have joined me on a few mission trips in the past with their daughters. Their perspective on this issue is helpful.

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“As parents of four preteen children, my wife and I are a bit ambivalent about technology in our children’s lives,” Hauck told me. “On the one hand, this is the new world we live in — homework is done on the internet, and road trips in the family car have fewer fights now that the kids have movies to watch in the backseat. You can’t just live in a bubble where there is no technology.”

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He continued, “Technology, particularly social media, poses pitfalls for the unwary, so we are concerned about the effects it can have on our daughters — especially as they move into their teen years. Teens — and adults for that matter — can have an unhealthy need for validation from peers on social media. They worry about what event they weren’t included in, or how someone else has experienced a fancier vacation.”

We are also changing the manner in which we fundamentally communicate with one another. Many of us now even boil down even strong feelings to simple emojis in a kind of emotional shorthand sent via text messages.

“All the time spent on social media can harm a child’s ability to have real, in-person conversations,” said Hauck. “It’s amazing to see teens at a restaurant where they’re all on their phones and not one is talking to another. That’s not just ridiculous — it isn’t healthy. As parents, we can’t be constantly looking over their shoulders — though we do require approval for any online purchase, such as an app. And we do monitor their emails and chats. But that’s not enough.”

Related: Parents, Pry Teens Away from Those Phones

It’s even more vital that parents model appropriate behavior in light of all this.

“We are trying to teach our children discernment and the formation of good consciences,” Hauck reflected. “Those are the tools that are going to help them choose the hard right from the easy wrong — online, and in life overall. We have tried to give them a strong foundation in our Catholic faith, sending them to our parish elementary school, where they are immersed in faith and morals. We have talked to them at home about the right way and the wrong way to use the internet. And that isn’t a one-time chat, but part of an ongoing conversation.”

This dad concluded, “I’m not pretending we have all the answers, but I hope, as they get older, they learn to use the internet and social media wisely — so they are not addicted to social media.”

“Children absorb so much of who you are, and imitate many of your habits, both good and bad.”

Thomas Lloyd, my other friend, mentioned an example that drives home the point of how kids are affected by their parents’ use of technology:

“There was an evening last week where I was reading and playing with my daughter after school. And in the middle of it, I felt my phone notification indicate an email, which I felt I needed to respond to. She said to me, ‘I guess we’re finished now,’ and walked away. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but later felt I had chosen work over her and she felt that as well. It made me realize I’m teaching her that my time on my phone always comes first over time with her.”

His message is clear: Before analyzing how to change your kids’ habits, look at your own. Children absorb so much of who you are, and imitate many of your habits, both good and bad. Like anything, there are pros and cons to this new virtual world, but it is clearly the role of parents to instill the criteria and boundaries that need to be in place.

This is the first generation of parents who really have to deal with this issue. Our culture will be affected by how they pass the technological torch onto their children.

Fr. Michael Sliney, LC, is a Catholic priest who is the New York chaplain of the Lumen Institute, an association of business and cultural leaders.

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