In April of 2015, our family dog was hit and killed by a car. Of course, we were devastated. However my 13 year-old stepdaughter, R, who lives with us full time, took the loss hardest. In a moment of weakness, as a way to try and make her feel better and in turn make ourselves feel better… we bought her a cell phone. Our dog’s passing was not the sole reason for this action: we had been discussing purchasing her a phone for months. We are a busy family in need of communication to coordinate pick-ups and drop-offs, etc.
There were many reasons why it was convenient to get R a phone.
As a parent, you want to give your kids the world. It hurts to watch them struggle, feel excluded and be unhappy. In the months leading up to the purchase of the cell phone, R was relentless in voicing her “need” to have such a device. According to R, she was the only kid in her classroom without a cell phone. Apparently, even the “unpopular” kids had phones. I wish we lived in a magical universe where all parents agreed not to buy their children the fancy new toys, clothes, or technology until all other parents agreed to… but we don’t. Of course, at the time, I knew R was not the only kid without a phone, but these allegations weighed on me.
So there I was, being pressured by R’s own peer pressure, and by the guilt of a dead dog, and by daily demands of parenthood… so R got her phone.
Before her father and I handed over that shiny white box, we had a long discussion about the rules and responsibilities of cell phone ownership:
- All homework and chores must be completed before the phone is used.
- R must be friends with me on all social media accounts, therefore I can monitor her activity (my husband does not have any social media… not even Facebook)
- No inappropriate, hurtful texts or social media posts are allowed.
- All photos posted or texted must be appropriate i.e, you would send them to your grandmother.
- If any grades drop below a B average, the phone would go away.
Once R agreed to all these rules, which she did without hesitation, we handed the device over. R was ecstatic and immediately set up Snapchat and Instagram. The new phone became a convenience for the entire family. It was easy for my husband and me to text R about pick-up times and to coordinate locations with her. However, everyday R got home from school, she retreated to her room to do homework with the company of her phone. We had become lackadaisical about our original rules, mostly because we were too busy to notice this new trend. In the evenings, through our thin walls, I could hear R’s muffled voice talking to a friend over Facetime, getting a ping from a text message, or listening to music on iTunes.
Her life became completely wrapped up in that phone.
We didn’t let all the rules slide, though. When R gave us attitude or had a low grade, we took away her phone. Sometimes we took it away for a few hours, while other times we took it for over a week. The phone was a sure fire way to prompt change in R’s behavior or to coerce her to work harder in school.
However, midway through her 8th grade year, we noticed a drastic change in R’s behavior. She was more moody, less engaged, and more easily aggravated than usual. After a long talk with R, she alluded to issues happening over social media and text messaging. Cell phones make teenagers much less accountable for their words and actions. It is much easier to be mean, inappropriate, and exclusionary to peers through social media than it is to act the same way to their face.
As a family, we sat down and tried to help R develop strategies to deal with her peers’ negative behaviors on social media. We explained that everything said or uploaded online can be there forever. Therefore, it was important for her to be respectful and responsible. We also suggested that she talk to her peers in person instead of just online. Some of our suggestions brought on eye rolls, however, we knew that she was heeding our suggestions because her overall mood improved in the days and weeks after our family meeting.
Soon after our conversation, I noticed that a majority of R’s photos on Instagram disappeared. Her account went from having over 200 photos to less than 15 posts. When I asked R about the change, she said she needed to delete all photos that had less than 40 “likes”. “Why does that matter?” I asked, and she looked at me like I had two heads and replied, “Because it’s just not cool to have a lot of pictures with no ‘likes’, and the fewer photos you post, the more ‘likes’ you get”. I asked her why it mattered how many “likes” a photo had. I could immediately tell she was getting even more annoyed. “Because getting ‘likes’ is cool, and the more ‘likes’ the better I feel about myself”.
There it was… what I had feared. R was letting social media determine her self-esteem.
We are all guilty at times of letting media determine how we feel about ourselves. It is almost inevitable in our current society. However, our conversation left me feeling uneasy. How could I help build R’s self-esteem and confidence in a world where your self-worth is determined by how many “like” you get on a selfie? I wanted to take away the phone and tell R to go read a book. However, I knew this would not solve the problem. R’s social network was on that phone. Her friends, her music, and the funny YouTube movies she had made were on that phone. I couldn’t take that away without a good reason. As a parent in a media driven society, I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place. Of course, I wanted my teenager to have the things that make her feel “cool” but at what cost to her overall happiness and self-worth?
Recently, we initiated (or re-initiated) some new rules surrounding the cell phone. When R gets home from school, the phone goes on the kitchen shelf no matter what, until all homework and chores are done, she has spent time with and engaged with the family, and she has done a little extra studying and or reading. These new rules have significantly helped decrease R’s cell phone usage as well as re-engaging her into the world outside her handheld device.
Every teenager is different, some are into sports, others school, and some have the need to constantly be on social media while others have less of an interest. No matter who they are, or who they are becoming, we are raising our children in a world that revolves around social media and electronic networking.