My kids burst through the front door, shedding backpacks and lunch bags, coats and boots. The house instantly becomes louder, as snippets of stories are shared, snacks are requested, and someone plunks mindlessly on the piano. “Is today a screen time day?” one of them asks. I shake my head “no” as I rummage through the fridge for snack options.
The youngest moans about screen time, declaring we should have it every day.
The older two begin their pleas:
“Can we have just ten minutes each?”
“Just one game?”
“But I want to show you something online.”
They negotiate, make offers they think I can’t refuse, give me their best puppy-dog eyes.
Then, when they realize my answer really is “no,” they furrow their brows and slink away. I wonder, as I watch them go, if we are doing anything right when it comes to screen time.
They are not deprived of screens — they get plenty of shows and games. We are not Luddites.
A few minutes later they — all three of them — are sprawled on the living room floor constructing complicated houses out of Legos and creating elaborate stories about who lives in these houses. I smile and think maybe we’re doing something right (today, at least).
Even while I wrestle with knowing how to navigate screen time these days, I also know that a much larger minefield is just over the horizon. My oldest is moving toward a shift developmentally where her friends will become her most significant circle for a while. And with that shift, these days comes all of the tangles of social media.
A while back, I listened to an episode of “This American Life” where they interviewed a few young teenage girls. These girls explained the ins and outs of how social media like Instagram and Snapchat reveal and determine their social standings at school. The way you comment on a photo, how quickly you do it, and who else comments says all kinds of things about where you fit in (or if you fit in at all).
As I listened, my heart broke for our young people. Growing up has always had its challenges. And those junior high years especially have never been easy. But today they have to do it all under the constant scrutiny of an online audience.
I watch my oldest daughter organize her Lego creations, and I’m overcome with the desire to protect her from what’s coming. And so, these words are for her. And for her friends. And maybe for any of the young people in your life, too.
“I look at you, still so much a child, but not more than a few years away from junior high. You are creative and independent, determined to do things your way. You are kind, sometimes shy, but also confident. You are comfortable in your own skin because you have never had any reason to doubt that you who are is just fine, wonderful, even. I don’t want you to lose that as you grow up.
I want so badly for you to enter your preteen and teen years with that same confidence. I want you to continue to explore the things you love. Right now that’s reading, art, and imagining. In a few years you might discover others. Let your interests grow and bloom without being squelched by what is or isn’t popular. You care about what’s fair. Allow that to help you see where things in our world aren’t fair and seek justice for others. I want you to have the courage to ask questions and learn, both in class and out without worrying about what might show up about you on someone’s snapchat. I want you to laugh with your friends and to learn how to navigate conflicts in person, face to face. And I want home to always be a soft place to land after a hard day, a place where you don’t have to be connected to the outside world for a while.
So, I might say ‘no’ to some things your friends are doing. I might say we’re going to hold off on social media for a while, or at least put some significant boundaries in place. I think I’ve told you already about a teacher I know who told me that when she taught Grade 4, she found that the kids who didn’t have phones seemed different to her; they were somehow more comfortable with themselves. I can give you the studies about how increased social media has been linked to increased anxiety and depression, but I’m not sure you’ll be swayed. There will probably be days when you believe I am being absolutely unfair. And there will probably be days when I will second guess myself.
But here’s what I want you to know: Your value is not determined by how many likes you get online. You are not beautiful because 30 of your friends comment on your selfie.
Oh sweet girl, you are beautiful because you are kind and brave, because you ask questions and learn and grow, because you let your unique gifts shine through as you discover who you are and who you are meant to be. You are beautiful because you are you, created in the image of a loving God. You are beautiful because you are loved unconditionally.
What am I teaching you, in these days before you’re even interested in social media, in these days when Legos and stuffies still absorb your attention? Do I check my phone when you are trying to tell me about your day? Do I talk about how many likes that cute picture of you garnered on my Facebook page? Do I choose to scroll Twitter or Facebook, staring at other people’s lives, when I could be playing with you?
You see, I’ve been sucked in a bit, myself, even as I’ve tried not to be. I’ve had moments of believing those messages that how important I am is somehow tied up with what happens online.
But, I am more than my likes and my comments. And so are you. I will do my best to counter those messages, to not let you get sucked into believing that your value comes from your social media accounts. Because this matters. So. Much. And so do you.”