Here’s my answer.
Growing up in the digital age is something most parents today know nothing about. We have no direct experience of what going through middle school in the era of social media is really like. We can, however, observe the impact of social media on our children. I want to emphasize that we must not underestimate its impact on our children. I believe that our middle schoolers are the most vulnerable to social media’s influence.
The reason I say this is based on child development theory. Erik Erickson developed the “Psychosocial” stages of development. He believed that an individual’s psychological development is intertwined with their social development. There are 8 stages in his model, ranging from birth through old age. The fifth stage, Identity vs. Role Confusion, is the one I want to focus on today. It occurs between the ages of 12 to 18.
According to Erikson the task for this stage is for the individual to develop their individual self, or their identity. Adolescents are looking for answers to the questions “who am I and what can I become?” This entails understanding what they like and don’t like, what their strengths and weaknesses are, their values, goals, dreams, and what roles they see themselves playing in society. This includes sex and gender roles as well as occupation and larger social identities. Research has shown that a stable and strong sense of identity is associated with better mental health for adolescents. Good relationships with peers are also linked with better emotional and psychological well-being.
Teens are constructing their own unique sense of identity. This takes time to figure out. An adolescent’s identity formation is impacted by their relationship with peer groups. Identity is very impacted by the sense of belonging. Teens are looking for groups of people where they can belong – their “crew” or “tribe”. This urgency and drive to belong becomes even more intense when their sense of belonging at home is at risk. That can be at risk when families are chaotic, unstable, and the child isn’t confident that they are loved or significant to their parents.
Have you ever heard the saying “Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future”? This is true because the person is going to adopt the same morals, ethics, goals, and social status of those peers. Adolescents will experiment with different lifestyles, values, and traits. They will put them on and take them off like actors changing costumes in a play. This is the “role confusion” challenge that adolescents are working through. Parents play an important role here. Parents can provide feedback that will help the child feel like they are heading in the right direction. This is particularly true when there is a good level of trust between parent and child – especially the child’s ability to trust that he or she is loved and belongs in the family.
What does all of this have to do with social media? I’m getting there. Before the digital age, an adolescent’s peer group consisted of those people with whom he or she had face to face contact. A teen’s focus in this regard had some boundaries. Now, I believe that what is happening is that the internet and social media is becoming the most influential peer in a child’s life. I’ll state that again: The internet is now a peer that your child looks to for feedback about their identity. Children are taking their most important question of “who am I?” to the internet! People they don’t know, or barely know, have way too much influence on the answer to this critical question. If you doubt this, just reflect on how much “confusion” is occurring in our society right now. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
Considering this, I suggest that parents do not allow their children to have social media until they are 18. If we can recall, Facebook was started as a social connecting platform for college students; People who are finishing up their identity formation instead of just starting that process. The risks outweigh the benefits for kids aged 12-18. I am seeing adolescents who are struggling with anxiety, real social isolation, and depression that dramatically improve when their parents take away their social media.
Think about this: with our social media technology there is no break in the constant connection to peer influence. Before the internet and smart phones, kids had a natural decompression time from the social and peer influence. Once home from school, they could actually have time to reflect and regulate before seeing and interacting with peers again. That doesn’t happen now. Instead, many children are texting, snapchatting, or otherwise communicating electronically with their peers all day and all night. This doesn’t give children the needed time to reflect on and integrate their social interactions. We all need to time to evaluate and reflect on our experiences.
If you don’t take social media away completely, at least put some boundaries on it for your children. Limit the time they access it. Try 15 minutes a day. Limit their on-line friends to their actual friends. Look at what your kids are looking at online. There is just way too much out there for kids to process on their own. It’s a wilderness in which they can easily become lost and confused. Be their companion and guide.