Social media is very often talked about in not-so-flattering terms in parenting circles. If you reflect for a moment, chances are good that you will recall seeing a few articles and opinion columns detailing the dangers of children and youth using Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and others as ways to interact with others. For certain, none of us want our children to be exploring the world of social media in any sort of an unsupervised way, particularly when there is the potential of being bullied online, or even being found by any number of internet predators, exploiting technology in order to have communications with those not yet able to make this sort of sound judgment on their own.
Clearly, there is a key role that all parents should play in monitoring their children's use of social media, and this stems from a natural wish to protect our children from threats and dangers in general. However, my focus in this column is not to add to an already considerable number of voices urging caution for parents, but to shine a light on a seldom-acknowledged element of young peoples' use of social media: that it can actually be a benefit to some in this age group. To do so, I have to make this assertion - Facebook, Snapchat and others are not inherently beneficial or harmful; rather, it depends greatly on one's purpose for use of social media in communicating with others.
The first purpose is sometimes a problematic one for a child or teen to carry out, that of wishing to get the attention of others. Having others take notice of us fills a basic need to belong and to be of significance to others around us, including even some we may never even have met previously. Perhaps the best example of being motivated by a need for attention comes with Facebook's "like" button, a press of which spreads awareness of one's comments, pictures, etc. to others very quickly. When a teen is motivated to build these "likes" from others, it can influence their words and online behaviours in ways that may not be reflective of their values or genuine character. In some of the more prominent cases of tragic online bullying we have become aware of in recent months, a desire for attention from others has often proven to be a strong motivating factor in continuing to engage with others who are making unhealthy and unreasonable demands at times, such as posting revealing photos or supplying personal information.
The second significant purpose for young people using programs like those mentioned above and many others is actually a very noble one, and at times can prove to be almost therapeutic. It can help youth and young adults to stay connected with friends and peers in real-time; this is especially important for those who have a fear or lack of confidence in deepening those meaningful connections with others, but who find comfort in being able to connect from a safe distance (at least at first). We must acknowledge that the youth of today do not rely on face-to-face meetings nearly as much as they once did in order to have their needs for connection met.
I think specifically of one teen I encountered who found herself unable to talk to most others about her own interests, challenges and successes; however, as the small number of significant friends she had went to a different school, it became imperative for her to have an easy means with which to be part of the larger conversation online the rest of them were already engaged in. As she did so, being careful to hand-pick only those on Facebook that she wished to deepen healthy connection with, her confidence and sense of happiness soon began to rise noticeably! In essence, social media provided a means for her to engage with others that would not have easily occurred any other way, and she was grateful for the benefit provided.
It would be difficult, in my view, to suggest Snapchat, Twitter and the like are necessarily harmful to a young person learning and finding their way in the world of friends and peers. There are dangers and pitfalls to be sure, but it might actually be harmful to put a full ban on all children and teens in your home using social media, and take away their ability to use a key tool in meeting important peers "where they are at". Strong encouragement from you as the parent or guardian to limit connection to those they know and trust may give them some needed guidance, while supporting a natural growth of independence.
Andrew Portwood is a certified Masters-level counselor in Kelowna with a heart for supporting and helping children, youth and young adults. He has also helped many parents to grasp a better understanding of why their children are choosing the behaviours they have, and how to move forward in a supportive, healthy manner. Creating authentic connection and clarity is essential in all he does, both as a counselor and in his life. Find more about him and his practice: