Kids and Social Media: Learning How to Navigate Emotions in Our Brave New Cyberworld

By Holly Goodman

When I was Roxie’s age, seventh grade, I stayed connected early 80s, middle school style. My best friend and I had marathon calls on the family phone, talking for hours, sometimes all night, while we watched the late, late movie of the week or HBO, or actual music videos on MTV. And when my friend moved from Ohio to Louisiana, we’d fill both sides of a 60-minute cassette with rambling spoken “letters” and sound bites from our lives. It’s what we had.

The drive people have for connection is powerful. Especially in middle schoolers.

We used every bit of technology available to keep up with each other at every possible moment. Just like our kids do — only our kids do it with social media.

We read and worry about the potential dangers of life online — like cyber bullying that follows kids from the school yard to the sanctuary of their own bedrooms. And compare and despair syndrome that involves streams of carefully curated pictures that appear to make everyone else’s life sleeker, shinier, better, cooler and happier than their own, not to mention the self-loathing that can comes with a “like” or “likes” of these posts. We also can’t forget the potentially depression-inducing pain that occurs when kids see pictures of that party they weren’t invited to attend.

It’s a lot to think about.

Last fall, my daughter’s middle school made headlines for a cyber bullying incident where students were threatened with physical and sexual violence. Facebook-owned social media giant Instagram, the favorite online gathering place of teens and tweens, took more than a month to remove the posts and shut down the anonymous bully’s account — even after repeated requests from school staff, parents and the principal.

We hear much less about the upside.

One study showed posted selfies can boost both self-esteem and confidence. Another study says using social media strengthens writing skills.

Recently, when a dear friend reluctantly caved to her 12-year-old’s pleas for an Instagram account, she was happily surprised with the outcome. Her daughter began to connect with kids she’d gone to school with for years and to assert herself as a confident, self-aware young woman.

My 12-year-old self would be totes jelly of my 12-year-old kid. She couldn’t have imagined social media as being real. She would have used it exactly the same way that Roxie does, posting as often as she could. She would have obsessed over her “likes,” although my daughter doesn’t seem to track them too closely.

This is what tweens do. They talk and talk and talk, by any means available. And they post pictures. They post pictures of their dinners and their new shirts and their faces. Constantly. Or at least as constantly as we let them.

We can limit their screen time and block their access after a certain hour. We can read over their shoulders and monitor their accounts, but our firmest boundaries won’t keep them from hurting when they see pictures from a party they didn’t know was happening.

We now know the emotional pitfalls of Instagram and Facebook. They are exactly the same as the emotional pitfalls of being a human.

Cyberspace may still be new terrain, but we’ve been human all our lives.

You can’t stop people from sharing upsetting posts. You can’t prevent your kids from using social media forever.

This is their world. How they inhabit it is not much different from how you did.

The most valuable thing we can teach our kids about their devices and the barrage of information those gadgets bring is this: online or off we can’t control what other people do, but we can control our reactions.

The sky is not falling, it’s just changing.

Photo credit: Getty
More from Holly Goodman

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About the Author

Based in Portland, Ore., Holly Goodman began writing professionally in 1991. Her articles have appeared in "The Oregonian," "Dog Fancy," "High Times," First Wives World and on, among other publications. Her fiction has appeared in "The Journal" and at Literary Mama. Goodman has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from The Ohio State University.