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Digital Parenting: Promoting Adolescent Health in an Online World

Abby Adams, Communications Manager
Today’s technology is changing us—as a society and as individuals—forever. Sometimes, we as adults don’t realize just how much.
 
The dilemma of parenting in the digital age is tougher than most generational shifts that have come before. We are “digital immigrants,” and it is difficult for those of us who have only adapted to technology use to understand the experience of those born into it. We may read up on social media trends and ask our children to explain their apps (not to mention asking them to help us set up our new devices), but we often lack a true understanding. And, just when we think we’ve got it figured out, another app or platform comes along, changing the landscape yet again.
 
In spite of these challenges, providing parental guidance around digital wellness is more important than ever. The ubiquity of social media and digital usage is shaping the way young people understand relationships, their surroundings, and themselves. In many ways, their world is different from ours.
 
During her presentation for Pacific Ridge parents on September 13, author Ana Homayoun explained that, as they grow up, today’s adolescents need to simultaneously navigate how they interact with others in the online and real worlds, working to figure out who they are in a confusing social landscape.
 
Ms. Homayoun provided the following statistics about how quickly social media has grown and how widespread it is:
  • Instagram is eight years old and now has one billion users and 400 million daily users on Instagram Stories.
  • Snapchat is seven years old and now has 191 million daily active users; 42% of kids in the United States today are on Snapchat.
 While this explosion of online communication tools helps to keep tweens and teens (and adults) in touch and provides fun ways to interact, it comes with major drawbacks for adolescents, especially when its usage dominates so many hours, each and every day.
 
Ms. Homayoun described a number of these pervasive, negative effects, such as altered self-expectations based on the “airbrushed reality” observed online, questionable values endorsed by a celebrity culture, information overload, and the magnified influence of likes and followers on adolescents’ ability to figure out who they are in an authentic way. Physical affects and the addictive nature of social media are also important concerns.
 
So, what to do?

According to Ms. Homayoun, parents can help, and need to be involved. Simply trusting tweens and teens to make smart choices on their own is as unwise as trying to block them from all social media and online activity. The technology is not going anywhere, so the sensible approach is to meet children where they are and give them the tools to manage their online life in a healthy way.
Her approach is to provide parents with a practical framework, focusing on socialization, self-regulation and safety habits. Among her top tips are to know what apps children are using, take phones out of the bedroom at night and develop family use agreements.
 
To learn more helpful information about parenting for digital wellness, we encourage you to read Ms. Homayoun’s book, Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World. Pacific Ridge’s faculty members read the book this summer and found it to contain a wealth of data, strategies and tips.
 
At Pacific Ridge, we are building on existing programming around digital skills and safety for both students and parents. During the month of October, we will repeat our ONEtober challenge in the middle school. The challenge, introduced by former Middle School Head Hans Richter, asks students - and parents - to commit to doing just one thing at a time. The goal is to raise awareness about online habits and to explore more efficient ways to get work, such as homework, done in a timely manner. After last year’s ONEtober experiment, students reported a greater understanding of how online multi-tasking (often with social media and platforms such as Youtube) affected their productivity at home.
 
This year, the middle school is also inviting parents to take part in developing a set of community norms and expectations around digital media use. Middle school parents can look forward to receiving more information about this soon.
 
As our children enter adolescence, we naturally adjust our parenting styles to allow for more independence, but still keep a watchful eye on them to make sure they are thriving. When new responsibilities come up, such as driving, we slip into the seat next to them and help them navigate the road. We provide crucial support where our children need it most.
 
While parenting in the digital age is no easy task and we may need to learn to “drive” alongside our children, our support is indeed crucial. When we work together as a community, we can go a long way toward promoting our children’s digital wellness, today and in the future.
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