A New World Order for Young Teens
At 13, a child’s social standing becomes extremely important to them, as it has become more important to all the other 13 year olds. For some, it is the most important aspect of life itself. Most teens would rather go without food and shelter than suffer any sort of social trouble.
At 13, a child’s feelings of insecurity, awkwardness, and fear are at an all-time high. The hormones are raging, the insecurities are constant, and the emotional swings are intense. The biggest concern of every day is how to get through that whole day without any public embarrassment. Their fears are fueled by the intense anxieties of their peers. It’s a sea of fears as far as the adolescent eye can see.
At 13, a child’s social life seems chaotic. The social scene is changing. Old friends act like enemies or frenemies. New friends are unpredictable. Romances pop up, then pop like a bubble. Groups form, morph, and fold in a just few days. Relationships are unstable. Who knows what is next? The social consequences of one wrong move are felt intensely.
It’s been this way for a long time in American culture, probably since the post-war 1940’s. For at least the past 70 years, the early teen years have always been tumultuous.
Now, enter smartphones, Instagram, and Snapchat. These online tools are like gasoline to the bonfire of the young teen’s social life. Conflagrations erupt online every day. Social media has created a social combat zone for middle school children. It’s the Wild West of the World Wide Web.
Some kids are learning quickly to stay out of the drama online, but it’s a widespread epidemic that is largely inescapable for the vast majority of young teens.
On CNN, Anderson Cooper and some researchers reveal what kids are doing to each other online in the realm of social media. It’s a documentary called #Being13. I think Mr. Cooper was searching for the good in it, and he found an overwhelming amount of bad and ugly in it. He was shocked at the widespread and nasty nature of so much of the interactions. Watch the brief video. It’s worth your time. Click here for the full video.
No matter how you slice it, there is no way of getting around that fact that the social landscape is much much different now in the age of smartphones and social media. The social lives of kids will never be the same. It is forever changed. The social lives of young teens is now a combat zone.
Michael Simon says in his book titled The Approximate Parent, “Digital media is ever-present and incredibly attractive to teen brains—especially teen brains that register novelty, risk-taking and the feeling of connection as highly pleasurable. The Internet, gaming, and use of social media are addicting.”
Rather than forbidding our young teens from using all mobile devices, we must teach them to view the world as an exciting and wonderful place of beauty and truth that is filled with good people who have so much to teach us. Yet we have to be very careful out there in the online world. By explaining the rules of the road—and the reasons for the rules—kids can think critically in situations where perhaps there is no set rule or when they are just not thinking about the rules.
The bottom line is that parents and teachers must be involved in the digital lives of kids if we’re going to help prevent dangerous situations and consequences that could last a lifetime. The kids will not find the right path on their own—that is for certain.
So we must train our kids to be extremely careful with what they put online, especially on social media. Every word and image made with a digital device should be treated as public and permanent.
Social Media Tips
- Delay all social media involvement as long as possible. I recommend not allowing Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or any others (and they are continually evolving) until a child is fourteen. At that point, ease into them slowly. This may seem puritan, but I’ve worked full-time for twenty years with middle school children, and I know that most young teens struggle to survive the school lunchroom. What makes us think they can handle the bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred arena of social media? Delay, then ease in with guidance.
- When the time comes, parents should have full access to every account, password, and friendship their kids have on every social media site. It might be best to have the kids share an account with Mom or Dad while they learn the rules of the road, like a driver’s permit. Granting children total online privacy is a very bad idea, no matter what anyone says. Also, be sure to carefully set each site’s settings for security. By default, they are all set for total openness, which makes for a scary lack of privacy.
- Make sure your children never, ever “friend” someone online who they do not know personally. Every online social connection must correspond with a real friendship in the real world. And personal information should never be given online that wouldn’t be given face to face.
- Remind children often that every picture, every message, and everything that is done online may stay online forever, and can be taken as a screenshot and forwarded in an instant. There is no such thing as online privacy, and the Internet remembers everything, so kids must proceed with great caution.
- Make sure that every mobile device and computer has a password-protected lock on the home screen. This ensures that their friends cannot pose as them or steal any of their pictures.
- Let your kids know that if anything happens online that is strange or upsetting in any way, they need to tell a parent, who can determine how to handle it best. Transparency and trust are a must.
- Be “friends” with your child online, but do not post comments and pictures for their friends to see. Be cool. Just watch and learn. Limit your online communications with them to texting and e-mailing. E-mail them funny and informative things that they will like. Let them know that you are there, that you care, and that you love them. Send them good news, encouraging messages, and inside jokes regularly.
- Allow absolutely no social media late at night. Set a time, perhaps 8:00 P.M., when all devices are turned off and returned to the family docking station in the kitchen or the parents’ bedroom. All screens should be shut down at least thirty minutes before bedtime to make it easier to fall asleep.
- Have a digital Sabbath now and then, when the whole family turns off all devices for a day, or a half day at least. If your children struggle with wanting to check their online lives during these times, then it’s time to cut back. Same for you. Get outside, if possible.
- Keep a close connection with your young teenager. This way, when trouble comes, they will be more willing to talk with you about it.
This is combat. We have to train our kids to protect themselves and to get help when it’s overwhelming.
A portion of this material originates from Critical Connection: A Practical Guide to Parenting Young Teens.