Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen dozens of first day-of-school photos posted on social media by proud parents. No longer are pictures limited to beatific kindergartners with unicorn backpacks. Parents are badgering college students to text them first-day photos, leading to shots like the one I saw of a sour-faced University of Georgia senior holding a sign that explained, “My mother made me do this.”
Children today lead well-documented lives, starting in their cribs with enthusiastic picture-taking and posting by their parents and then, as adolescents, revealing themselves on TikTok, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat.
As a result, children now have major benchmarks shared in public: first steps, first words and first days of school. But lives played out on social media hold risks as kids get older, from being canceled or even denied college admission because of their online missteps, and that increasingly worries parents.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued an advisory in May that social media could be harming young people’s mental health, noting that 95% of teens now use it. As an expert on the digital habits of kids and author of the upcoming book “Growing Up in Public,” Devorah Heitner delves into what it means to come of age with zero privacy and constant judgment.
In a telephone interview from her home in Chicago, Heitner said she often hears from fearful parents unsure of how closely they ought to oversee their child’s online activities. With social media now a fixture, Heitner advises parents to guide their kids through the digital universe rather than attempt to lock them out of it.
“We can’t just keep them out of digital communities. We want to mentor more than monitor,” said Heitner, author of the 2016 book “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World.”
When parents complain to her that their children only go on social media for attention, Heitner responds that everyone on social media wants attention, and it’s not weakness to yearn for affirmation, acceptance and likes.
Heitner says kids and young adults conduct large swaths of their lives online, including creating social connections. Not only do college students rely on online dating sites like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge, but many adults are also meeting online, she said.
“Kids need these skills for their future professional and personal success. Many of them will potentially meet their college roommates online and work colleagues online. They will have to email professors and bosses,” said Heitner, who holds a doctorate in media, technology and society from Northwestern University and has taught at DePaul University, Lake Forest College and Northwestern.
Heitner recommends parents aim to become sounding boards for their kids rather than spies. “If you think your child is in an online relationship, I would be really clear in telling them that you know some kids are dating online and, if that came up for them, these would be my concerns and questions,” she said.
She advises the same approach if parents fear that their child may be seeing content posted by hate groups. Parents could mention that some kids are being recruited or drawn into racist and misogynist conversations online and ask, “Is this happening to anyone you know?”
“If you indicate you have some idea of what is out there, it opens the door up for kids being open to you and you become a resource,” said Heitner.
She warns against overreaction to such common teen occurrences as sexting. “When two kids willingly and consensually are sharing images of themselves, I don’t think that should be a crime, and we lose credibility when we lead with the fear factor in talking to our kids because they know their friends have been doing this and have not been arrested.”
Heitner recognizes that a double standard still exists where teen girls face greater stigma for sending photos than boys for requesting and sharing them, saying, “Double standards are very real, and parents need to lean in to that and talk to their sons and their daughters.”
Heitner also acknowledges that “you can’t prevent every dumb thing your kid is going to do.” In some cases, parents may need to take cellphones from kids at night. But that isn’t a workable approach for older teens who need to learn how to self-regulate and put down their phones, she said.
If parents want kids to understand boundaries in social media, Heitner says they have to respect boundaries themselves, and that includes asking permission before posting anything about their children.
She also criticizes the rush to vilify kids whose mistakes — racist comments, stupid videos — go viral. “I don’t want to be an apologist, but kids should not be told at 12 or 14 that this mistake will be with you forever and you will never recover,” she said. “If kids mess up in sixth grade, they should be held accountable in sixth grade. We don’t want to live in a society where something someone says in sixth grade comes back years later.”
Heitner credits young social media users with fostering a cultural shift in how we regard and talk about issues once considered taboo. “It is not all gloom and doom,” she said. “The more kids talk about surviving sexual assault, therapy, mental health and LGBTQ identities, the more I recognize that they are destigmatizing these experiences and feelings by sharing them and they are changing the world.”