Our kids need us to be parents, not peers

Perhaps more than ever before, being a parent today is like treading water. It requires stamina and a constant vigilance. Our efforts can feel like a drop in the bucket compared to what our kids need.

All we have to do is look at the news and realize that the challenges mothers and fathers face today are different than at any other time in history. We have to be more engaged because arguably, the things that are often most harmful to our children go wherever they go in the forms of smartphones, watches, and since Covid, school-issued tablets and laptops.


News continues to pour in about Meta (Facebook and Instagram's) targeting of tweens and teens since whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked internal documents to the Wall Street Journal in September. Since then, a firestorm about law and accountability has ensued. Indeed, Congress is taking note: On Wednesday, Ms. Haugen will testify before Congress for a second time. Other social media giants appear to be affecting our kids as well. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported a spike in tics among teen girls who consume TikTok videos of Tourette Syndrome. Girls seem to be particularly prone to lowered self-esteem and body image from time spent on these apps.

 

Parents hold so much of the power because we hold the purse strings.

 

And while we stand on the sidelines and watch all of this frankly unsurprising finger-pointing and drama unfold, what are we as parents to do? First, we must realize that we hold so much of the power because we hold the purse strings. Our children can't get their own cell phone contracts. They generally don't pay for their Internet access nor their devices. Having access to these luxuries is a privilege, not a right. There are parental controls on smartphones and tablets; we can certainly limit the time spent on these devices, or require that our kids not download certain apps through permission requirements. At the end of the day, if our kids liking us keeps us from doing what's best for them, we're not parenting, but rather befriending.

 

If our kids liking us keeps us from doing what's best for them, we're not parenting, but befriending.

 

I have been guilty of this at times myself. I know I appreciate the friendship-like qualities I enjoy with each of my kids (ages 13, 11 and 8). I have heard moms proudly call their teenagers their "best friends." And we should appreciate solid relationship-building with our children based on trust, respect and love - so many of the reasons we choose our friends. But, it is important to make sure we don't "friend" our kids at the cost of not being able to parent. Our children need their relationships with us to be different from the ones they have with friends, even as they are getting ready to set sail on their own. They need unconditional love, protection and boundaries.


Expecting for-profit companies to keep our kids' best interests at the forefront of decision-making is naive. The purpose of publicly-traded companies is to make money and keep making more. Changing laws and charging fines won't change much, either. But within the walls of our homes, we can and must talk about social media use and how it affects all of us. Meta and Snapchat say accounts are for people ages 13+ in accordance with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Any child younger than that with an account has lied about his or her age. With TikTok, there is a special app called TikTok for Younger Users that enables parental controls until a child is 13 and old enough to register for a regular TikTok account. (And this came about from TikTok's settlement with the FTC for violating COPPA.) But with many parents' ignorance, acquiescence, or, in many cases, happy consent, our tweens are lying about their age to consume media that so often do more harm than good. And we are at least partly to blame.

 

Our tweens are lying about their age to consume media that do more harm than good. And we are partly to blame.

 

Our daughter's school is organizing an assembly for kids in grades 5-8 to encourage them to commit to staying off social media until they're 14. I applaud it for that. Schools can make a difference through campaigns and efforts such as this one. But for parents, if we want to stem the tide or even be part of reversing it, there are organizations that want to help and products we can use. While we don't use it in our home because our kids aren't on social media and we use parental controls already available on our Apple products, check out bark.us for a potential resource to help manage your child's online time and accessibility. And to become an advocate, start with https://www.endchildsurveillance.com/. Also watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix. Because "everybody else has one" and "everybody else is doing it" are the oldest tricks in the book. And whether these phrases were said by our grandparents, our parents, us, or our kids today, one thing about parenting hasn't changed: that argument still holds no water. A peer might give in to that kind of pressure; but no parent should.

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