"It is hard to know sometimes how our life has changed until we stop for a moment and look at how different it is from ten or even five years ago. In recent years, social media, more than anything else, has significantly impacted most of our daily lives.”
Social media has become one of the dominant ways we communicate, gather and share information.
Whether we like it or not, the newfound reality is that we are all engulfed in this new world of communication due to technology — and if we haven’t done so already, we are all being forced to learn a new language of how to best navigate a world dominated by social media not only for ourselves but also for our children.
For most teens, social media networks are how they interact, participate in casual conversations, break-up relationships and even bypass the development of much needed interpersonal skills.
If you’re a parent who has struggled with creating digital balance amidst a barrage of intended and unintended effects of social media, that’s where Ana Homayoun comes into the picture.
She helps families find balance in their digital life.
Growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley and now traveling to schools all over the country advising about digital wellness, Ana Homayoun, a noted teen and millennial expert, school consultant, speaker and educator, is the author of three books including her most recent, Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World.
Often referred to as the “teen whisperer,” Ana helps teens and tweens thrive — not just survive in their young lives.
Here is our discussion on how families can create balance in their digital life:
BJB: What led you to write about the social media wellness of kids?
AH: In 2007, I was featured in the New York Times about my work with disorganized boys. It was from that feature that I got my first book deal for That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week: Helping Disorganized and Distracted Boys Succeed in School and Life.
When I was conducting research for my second book, The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success in School and Life, technology was starting to pop up everywhere.
At that time, I talked with middle and high school girls who told me (1) they watched The Bachelor for relationship advice, and (2) they were on these anonymous websites where they had profiles. This was back in the day of Ask.fm. They talked about their profiles where people were posting mean comments, but they didn’t think it was affecting them. One girl revealed she was in therapy because of low self-esteem but did not link (her low self-esteem) to the fact that people were writing disturbing comments about her.
I thought, “This is really interesting. I need to learn the language of social media and I need to learn it fast.”
Being in Silicon Valley, many of the schools I worked with were bringing technology into the classroom and this raised issues that no one had a plan to deal with. I pointed this out to administrators and teachers and then began to coordinate a plan with them.
The central focus of my work is based on the following question:
How do we help give kids the tools to intrinsically make better choices when adults are not watching?
I also work with families. Not too long ago, I had a student come into my office who struggles in school and has some learning issues, but is also highly charismatic and sweet. During the session, I asked her to take out her phone so we could look at her screen-time usage.
She spent over 50 hours on her phone in one week; 35 of those hours were on Snapchat and Instagram.
She and I walked through the basic strategies she could put in place, like turning off the phone at a certain hour and also using Screen Time to shut down apps after a certain amount of usage or at a predetermined time. I use this as well and everyone in the family can do this. For parents, an important factor is how you model behavior.
You can also suggest kids ask themselves the following:
“Is your social media use working for you?”
But if you find yourself scrolling mindlessly, procrastinating, then you might consider adjusting your behavior.
With the constant comparison culture, kids are having a harder time figuring out who they are and what they like to do, what they want to try or where their intrinsic ability shines the most. We can give them the tools to think about and build awareness if how they’re spending their time is energizing or draining.
My goal is to help kids reexamine and reflect on who they are, what they want to do and what they want their contribution to the world to be.
BJB: Can you talk about “on-all-the-time” mentality?
AH: The on-all-the-time mentality reflects research that suggests over 70% of teens look at or touch their phone within five minutes of waking up. And 58% of adults do the same thing.
For many kids, they feel as though they’re on all the time because they perceive their biggest pressure as the need to answer every message. They feel that it is rude if they don’t respond right away.
Parents are also a part of this challenge.
Some kids will say, “I actually want to be off my phone, but my mom says if I don’t answer her text message within five minutes she’ll get worried.” This is one of the reasons schools want to ban phone usage during the day. It’s a complicated world we’ve created, and I understand where parents are coming from. It’s just important to be aware and understand what’s happening.
Kids need a daily time when they can be offline, and that’s where parents and families can work together to create a plan.
BJB: To what extent does emotional hunger affect social media use?
AH: It’s like the quick fix versus the longer growth.
There is the new place where “likes,” “loves” and follows have become the new barometer for popularity. We see this among adults as well as with the influencer culture.
I was at an all-girls high school a few weeks ago, in Baltimore, and we were talking about this issue. I asked, “What have you seen on Instagram, or other platforms, that focuses on the idea of the ‘perfect girl’?”
In our culture, we tend to focus on looking healthy rather than feeling healthy.
This is particularly problematic because every community has a different standard for looking good.
The idea is, how can we shift the conversation from looking healthy to feeling healthy?
I think a lot of emotional hunger, and how it relates to social media use, is it becomes a compensatory behavior. For example, you feel lonely or unworthy, a sense of shame, or vulnerability and you don’t want to deal with it. It’s much easier to go online and engage quickly, or get a response to one-line conversations, than it is to sit with someone and really hear their story.
For the past year, I’ve visited 35 cities. If I’m visiting a city and I know I have a friend there because of social media, I’ll message them and see if they’d like to meet for coffee. It’s been such a wonderful experience because I’ve learned you don’t really know what’s going on with someone until after the first hour of coffee. That’s when you get beyond the surface.
The challenge with kids, who are stuck in emotional hunger, is that puberty is such an emotionally disjointed experience, they constantly have messages coming at them of how to look, act and be. We as adults have to be aware of the fact that the content kids are consuming is affecting their sense of self.
BJB: What tools can parents teach their children to remain autonomous when they are constantly being pushed by algorithms trying to manipulate their behavior?
AH: The best thing to start with is to help kids become scrupulous consumers and know they’re being targeted.
Curiosity can be developed around this.
For example, depending on the age of your child, you can put in place a rule that whenever your child wants to download a new app, they have to do a brief history of the app by looking at data and privacy issues that have come up; find out about the history of the founder and how the app evolved.
Kids are curious, and we can give them the platform and opportunity to become informed and aware, so they’re not downloading apps without reflection. We want them to make decisions around understanding what they’re using, what they’re sharing and where it’s going. Rather than using judgment and fear around usage, we want to do a better job of fostering digital citizenship by being compassionate to help them navigate this new language.
BJB: How can we best relay the importance of being mindful of digital footprints?
AH: I think it’s helpful to use current events as a conversation starter.
You can use currents events, not to scare your kids into going “underground,” but to help them start to think about implications. For example, the Harvard incident where admissions were rescinded can be a dinner conversation to foster critical thinking skills, so if they’re put in a situation like a secret group that begins to share terrible things, they opt themselves out. It’s the same idea as being at a party and they decide to leave.
Also, Snapchat is very clear on its blog that nothing goes away and posts can be shared with law enforcement with a warrant. Parents can print the safety policy, go over it with their kids and eliminate the idea that posts are temporary. Of course, this is not to scare them, but it serves as a reminder to have a more filtered conversation.
BJB: How does the online experience negatively impact face-to-face interactions between kids?
AH: A lot of times, kids don’t have the skills to introduce themselves to other kids they judge as being different from them. This narrows the definition of what their community looks like. It also narrows the definition of what their view of the world looks like as well as what success looks like.
My goal is to help kids, particularly in middle school, expand exposure and shared experiences to learn from others and to build that opportunity to break down the introduction. Usually introductions are happening on a screen, or kids are not introducing themselves at all. They end up hanging out with five kids. We know that the more kids introduce themselves and the more they have authentic conversations, the less stress they feel about school.
BJB: What has been the most surprising part of your work in schools?
AH: The most surprising piece of data is the percentage of kids who feel they don’t have someone they can turn to if something problematic or inappropriate happens online.
I became aware of this from data collected in the surveys I conduct before visiting schools. At some schools it’s between 10% and 25% of students. It’s imperative that all children have an adult in their lives who they feel is trustworthy, who they can turn to for socio-emotional and physical safety online and in real life.
BJB: What is the best part about helping kids create balance in their digital life?
AH: I love my job. I love to see how kids actively participate to find solutions in an authentic way. How much better can your life be when you help kids think about these things in a different way?
Ana is a graduate of Duke University and holds a Masters in Counseling. She is the founder of Green Ivy Educational Counseling and the author of three books, most recently Social Media Wellness. A nationally recognized educator and speaker, she writes frequently about adolescent and young adults’ issues and is featured regularly in The New York Times, NPR, The Atlantic, and others.
More at: www.anahomayoun.com or on Twitter @anahomayoun.