As parents and educators, we often hear (and engage in) complaints about teens and social media. What we don’t often talk about is what drives their behavior, but if we are to have meaningful conversations with students about social media use, it helps to understand it.
One key point to remember is that, as human beings, we are neurobiologically wired for connection. Our brains are designed to reward us for being part of a social network and alert us that something is wrong if we are feeling isolated. Without connection to others, we suffer. This phenomenon is especially pronounced during our adolescent years which accounts for the extraordinary drive to find others with whom we belong.
I remember my parents’ frustration at the endless hours I spent on the phone every evening, the 10-foot cord stretched down the hallway so I could tuck myself away in my room with the door shut and talk to friends. Like most teens, I craved connection. The 8 hours a day I spent with friends at school wasn’t enough. Today’s teens are the same, but they have different technologies available to them than we did.
There are so many examples in the media of the ways adolescents use social media to harass each other, but we don’t often look at the ways they use it to make each others’ lives better. FaceTime has become a great way for students to help each other with homework or work on group projects. Individual Instagram accounts have allowed teens to see a different side of their peers – learning about other interests they have outside of school. Social media as a whole enables students who live in geographically distant areas to connect around common passions or struggles and can lead to some pretty amazing activism.
Overall, it seems that adolescents haven’t changed that much over the years, but the tools they use to engage socially have. The key as parents and educators is for us to acknowledge that teens will always find ways to create and maintain strong social networks and use our wisdom and influence to help them understand how to use those tools in a way that builds them up and flexes their social-emotional muscles. Asking lots of open-ended questions about how and why they use certain social media platforms can help adults learn what kind of connection is most important to an individual student, and it can give them some insight and self-awareness. It isn’t uncommon for teens to start doing something because their peers are doing it, but if we can encourage them to reflect on whether it is filling a need, they are more likely to make good choices about how and when to repeat that behavior.
Removing an adolescent’s ability to engage with their peers by taking their phone away or blocking Internet access doesn’t eliminate the drive to connect, and it can harm your relationship. Helping teens find ways to maintain productive, healthy social connections, both in person and virtually, by acknowledging their need to bond with others and enabling it whenever possible will go a long way toward building trust.