How long should we delay girls from using social media?

by Michelle Cove, Executive Director MEDIAGIRLS

When my daughter was in sixth grade (three years ago), we gave her a flip phone. She was mortified by how “ancient” it was, and my calling it “retro” didn’t help. In any case, she desperately wanted a phone, and I desperately didn’t want her jumpstarting a social-media addiction. So this was our compromise. I wondered how long I could postpone giving her a smartphone with access to social media. At some point, I knew withholding one would become cruel and unusual, and that she needed to practice social-media skills by using them.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of a social media. Professionally I use it to promote MEDIAGIRLS work, get inspired by cutting-edge media makers and other girl organizations, and stay updated on cultural trends to use in our classes and workshops. Personally, I use it for laughter, advice, recommendations, and news. I’ve cheered on high-school and college students who use social media to challenge and create social good. I love most of all that it gives us all a chance to go beyond consuming media and become part of the conversation.

So why deny my daughter all that?

While there are heartening reports in which girls say social media makes them feel supported by friends, I hear too often how it makes them feel overwhelmed and anxious. I hear from girls about the stress that comes from seeing pics on Instagram of friends at group gatherings they weren’t invited to; getting tagged on pics that are unflattering and embarrassing; getting yelled at for not commenting fast enough on friends’ postings. One 14-year-old told me last month that her friends demand to know why she doesn’t comment on their Snapchat posts just minutes after they were posted: “Sometimes I just want to say, ‘I was in class! I mean, I don’t spend every waking second on Snapchat,” she told me. It’s a lot of pressure.

I know it is up to me to teach my daughter best practices and values around social media. But part of me thinks life is hard enough just being a middle-schooler without so much additional drama. So how long can I hold off? I asked two people I trust implicitly when it comes to raising healthy girls with media.

The first is Lisa Darmour, PhD, author of the New York Times Best Seller Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, who responded: My general advice is that parents should hold off as long as possible…but they often (and understandably!) give in when a girl becomes socially isolated because she doesn’t connect via social media. I think that giving girls access to social media apps should be given over gradually, with a lot of rules about the when’s and where’s of technology early on. This also makes for more limited use, and is easier to monitor for parents. Girls should then get fewer constraints as they demonstrate that they can keep social media from causing too much stress, and interfering with sleep, homework, and real relationships.”

I also appreciated this advice from Amy Jussel, Executive Director of Shaping Youth, who says “We can not, must not, turn a blind eye to the role of media influence with fear-based ‘block and tackle’ parenting styles that tamp down the very tools, technology and social skills kids need to forge ahead as a competent adults.”

That said, Amy reminded me that we don’t have to just hand over a smart phone, and see it as a point of no return. As parents, we should build in mandatory breaks. Says Amy, “Toting school pals in the pocket 24/7 like a 21st century peer reality- show is tiring; so it’s OUR job as parents to step in and ‘unplug’ with a wallop of perspective regularly to diffuse (and sometimes defuse!) electronic bomb blasts of data to create healthier, more balanced boundaries and self-governance beyond group think and peer perpetuation.”

In 7th grade, I allowed my daughter to choose one social-media app, and like many girls, she picked Instagram. She spent far more time on it than I would have preferred, and I took it away more than a couple times when she pushed the time restrictions we’d set or she broke the rule of keeping it out of her bedroom at night. We talked a lot (a LOT) about the ups and downs of the content, how she was representing herself, how her friends were using it, and other feeds she was consuming. I checked in regularly to see with my own eyes how she was using Instagram, in spite of the fact that I found this entire process tedious. Let me say, I get why parents don’t want to monitor their kids’ social media. It’s really boring and can be stressful.

By eighth grade, she spent less time on it and started to realize that it was kind of boring for her too to see the same posts over and over (“Here I am smiling with my friend!” “Here I am trying to smile in a sexy way!” “Here I am drinking my Starbucks concoction!”). She shut down her account, started a new one (this time adding only followers she truly cared about rather than focusing on jacking up numbers). She uses  it more responsibly, and I allowed her to add Snapchat to keep in touch with her friends from sleep-away camp. She goes through various phases of using it more or less, but the whole process calmed down considerably. If I had my druthers, girls would not start using social media until 8th or 9th grade. I think 7th grade, when there is so much hyper-emphasis on popularity and drama, is the single worst time for girls to be on social media. This has been proven to me again and again by confessions from thousands of girls in MEDIAGIRLS workshops and programs. I hope that’s where we land…waiting. Until then, it’s clear this process has to be super intentional and hands on, with clear expectations that will likely shift. It calls for checking in, monitoring and continuous discussion. As a working parent, that feels tiring and a bit overwhelming. But, then, so is teaching our kids to be responsible, thoughtful, and resilient citizens. Seems worth it, right? ​
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