Smartphones, power, and belonging

Recently, my family and I went to a showing of a documentary called Screenagers at a local church. It was a good documentary that followed a couple who was trying to decide whether or not to get a smartphone for their 12 year-old daughter. It featured interviews with scientists and psychologists and facts from studies to demonstrate the bad effects our phones are having on our brains, but in particular the still-developing brains of our adolescents. It also looked at the effects of video games on children.

Afterwards, there was a question and answer time with a local counselor who works with children and families. Several thought-provoking questions were asked. One father asked a question about the best way to impress on children that what is said on social media or the Internet is out there forever, that they can never erase it no matter how much they might regret it. That’s a really good question. Spend any time on Twitter, as I do, and you’ll see plenty of adults who apparently have never considered that what they say on social media can never be taken back. Not me, of course.

I scribbled some notes during the session about how I would answer that question. I would have said that a smartphone is a powerful thing. It can do amazing things, including helping one feel connected to others even when you’re not with them. It can give one immediate gratification when something they’ve said on social media gets a lot of attention. That feels powerful. When you combine that with the desire to be liked, to belong, it can be overwhelming. I know that firsthand. I have noticed myself too many times trying to craft a social media post in just the right way so it will get a lot of likes and appreciative comments. I’ve found myself checking repeatedly to see how my latest post is going. I have talked to other adults who have done the same thing. Last December I wrote a funny comment on a sports blog I follow and the likes started pilling up. The other day I found myself thinking about going back to see if it had generated even more likes and responses. And that was after I wrote the first draft of what you’re now reading.

If we have trouble managing these things think of the terrible weight we are putting on adolescents at an extremely vulnerable age to manage so much power on their own. So much of their world in junior high and high school is consumed with how popular they are, or whether they at least have a group to belong to, even if it’s not the in group. Having a smartphone must feel powerful to them. They can keep up on what’s being said, about who’s in and who’s out. It must feel in some ways that if they don’t keep up with what is being said they might discover too late that they’re the ones being talked about. Who in junior high wants to feel that? Better to stay hooked to Instagram so you’ve got a fighting chance to control what’s being said about you. A conversation with our kids about power and belonging might go farther than just limiting their time on screens. It doesn’t take much time on a phone to say regretful things, so simply limiting screen time just misses the point. It is an important thing to do. It’s just not the best answer to this question.

The other thing I would say is borrowed from a talk I heard at our church a few years ago from Mary Flo Ridley, who helps parents understand how to talk to their kids about sex. She has an exercise where she draws about 80 hash marks on a sheet of paper. Or rather, she instructs parents to do this with their children. Each hash mark represents a year of an average lifespan of 80 years. Then she suggests talking to our kids about their dreams for their life. What kind work are they hoping to have for their career? Do they want to be married and have children? She suggests asking several goal-oriented questions like these about their life goals. Then she circles the hash marks from about the twelfth to the twenty-sixth ones and says that what happens in these years can be crucial to whether the goals they’ve set for their lives can be reached. She’s talking about sexual decisions, but I think the same idea goes a long way to helping children understand the impact of comments they make or videos or pictures they post on social media.

And it is so very important to their futures. It has become quite common for a young athlete to get drafted by a professional sports team and shortly thereafter have social media posts they wrote as 14 and 15 year-olds be exposed to the world. What should be a time of great joy for them is suddenly soured by the revelation. Recently, Harvard denied admission to a young man for derogatory and racist comments he had made a couple of years prior to his initial admission to the school. We can complain all we want about the unfairness of things someone said as a teenager being held against them as an adult. Frankly, I’m glad people don’t have a record of some of the things I said as a kid, or for that matter, as a young adult. But right or not it’s the world we live in and we’ve got to help our children manage it as best as they can. A discussion with our children about power and belonging and their dreams can help them understand the need to police themselves on their smartphones. And maybe we adults will learn something, too.