Its Complicated

Kids Are Addicted to Social Media Because Parents Are Addicted to Control

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as the headline makes it seem.

But new data suggests that while the often heard complaint, “Kids these days spend all their time online rather than face-to-face,” may be true, it’s not true for the reasons we think. No, today’s under-18 crowd is not made up of degenerates who don’t like human contact. Rather, they want face-to-face time as much as we did, it’s just that their parents won’t let them have it.

Parents Controlled by Fear

Its ComplicatedIn her forthcoming book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, dana boyd interviews teens about their social media usage versus time in person. In almost all cases she found that the students said they would much rather spend time face-to-face, but they cannot because, well, their parents won’t let them.

Two major cultural shifts seem to be at the root of this. The first is that many of today’s youth are over-scheduled with sports, school activities, community service, and so on, all in an effort to be visible in an increasingly competitive college admissions process. This means they have very little down time to rest or be with friends.

When teens do have a little precious free time, the second cultural shift takes over. Today’s parents are much less likely to let their kids roam free, exploring the outdoors, riding bikes, going over to the friend’s house down the street, or engage in other unstructured activities. Ben Wiseman of Wired suggest that this parental tightening began when, “over the [past] three decades, the media began delivering a metronomic diet of horrifying but rare child-abduction stories, and parents shortened the leash on their kids.”

In other words, 24-hour news coverage of kidnappings made it seem like American neighborhoods are less safe when, statistically speaking, there are fewer kidnappings than when today’s parents were kids. But today’s parents (the same ones who get all their parenting advice from online sources) scared by the unstoppable torrent of violent images and stories, respond by keeping their kids sequestered at home.

What Kids Really Want

danah’s data and conclusions shouldn’t surprise thinking Christians. Our understanding of humanity teaches us that every man, woman, child, and teen was created in the image of a deeply relational Truine God. Certainly some of that “image” is our longing for contact, community, and presence.

But left in solitary confinement with nothing but an internet connected device, today’s kids have little choice. They desperately want human connection, but the only parentally-allowed way to image the Triune God is to use Snapchat, Facebook, or the flavor of the week. As boyd puts it, “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They are addicted to each other.”

So the next time you see a checked out kid on her phone, remember that there might be more going on that what you see outwardly. This doesn’t mean that we need to turn kids into victims or excuse every negative, narcissistic behavior. What it does mean is that saying “Turn off your phone” doesn’t address the very real social and culture issues at the root, nor does it offer a compelling alternative.

To an over-scheduled teen under constant parental surveillance “Turn off your phone” basically means “Go to your room and be alone.” That’s no good either. Without real, unstructured time with friends, kids can’t develop the healthy social interactions today’s adults long for them to have.

[Note: I say all this as a parent of preschoolers, so my time is coming!]

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary. I also write and speak on issues around technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

61 thoughts on “Kids Are Addicted to Social Media Because Parents Are Addicted to Control”

  1. Great article. Love when we look past what is obvious at first glance and did a little deeper. The line “go to your room and be alone.” Boom, that one brought some conviction.

    1. Agree with Darren! I love this perspective that “the only parentally-allowed way to image the Triune God is to use Snapchat, Facebook, or the flavor of the week.” Changes the pointing finger a little.

  2. John, thanks for another great post. You are right on with these insights. I continue to find evidence (outside and inside my own home) that our kids are over-scheduled and over-controlled by parents. Tech is not the root of the problem, we are.

  3. I read your review of danah boyd’s book with interest. From mere “personal experience”, I am less sanguine about the what kids really seems to want. Like the title of boyd’s book, I’d say “It’s complicated”. I found the piece in the NY Times by Daniel Jones in the column “Modern Love” insightful. Sure, it wasn’t about teens or children, but it did describe in horrifying imagery the addiction people have to the instantaneous response of a gadget vs. the somewhat plodding, nuanced and *realness* of a human being. Sadly, some preferred the allure of what was projected on the gadget to real life. I have seen this with friends of my daughter that, for the life of her, won’t be satisfied with anything but their phone. I see this with teens texting while in the presence of EACH OTHER. Granted, I have not read the book and I am sure I am not giving ms. boyd a fair shake. I will agree that it is simply amazing that many adults buy the “safety” argument in giving their child a phone (and, of course, a smartphone). I will agree with the over-scheduling and the race to get into a stellar school. I wonder if she writes about the peer pressure to have a phone and be on social media? I have told my daughter that nowadays it’s much easier to tell who really wants to be your friend: Will they still want to communicate with you if you only have a family landline and email sans Facebook, Twitter, or a cell?

    I am sure I’ll try and find the book in the library.

    thank you for the review.

  4. Yes.

    Social media is used to connect, not seclude. Kids are on their phones all the time because they want to be connecting to someone all the time.

    It’s the same reason I lunge for my phone when it’s text alert chirps. Because I know that someone I wish I was with is reaching out to me.

  5. I’m a parent of young kids too, so I yet to have much experience in this area BUT if we ask our children to turn off their phones shouldn’t it be so that we can socially connect as a family? If I asked my children to shut off their phone my expectation wouldn’t be that they went to their room alone, but that spent time with our family connecting.

  6. Kristy, you are absolutely right! Turn off your phone does not mean go be alone, it means talk to who you are with. I teach a homeschool art class and it is very hard to get them to give up their phone for two hours when they are surrounded with social interaction. I find it very disturbing.

    1. Sandra and Kristy,
      I think what you are saying is totally correct. Many kids (and adults) have an unhealthy connection to their phones. They have trouble putting them down in social situations.

      What this research is claiming is not that kids don’t have a problem. It’s that the source of the problem comes long before family time or art class. It comes when kids are stuck indoors for most of their lives. That’s where they develop the bad habit of too much phone time and where they start to see the phone as the most important thing in the world.

      So this article isn’t meant to say there is no problem. It’s to help us discover the deeper roots so we treat the cause not just the symptoms.

  7. I heard an interview with boyd, and some reportage from her book, this weekend on NPR. For me it mostly rang true. I’m the father of a teenager and, yes, she does seem to want to be digitally connected more than I think is appropriate (or healthy). But as I type this I can hear her strumming her guitar and singing in her room. Chords found online.

    And she loves spending time outdoors—rock climbing, swimming, you name it.

    Most of the time, I can see her reaching for connections to the world, and trying to find her place in it.

    In this quest I think right now her iThing (my old phone, sans SIM card), her Instagram, her Tumblr, her Anime viewing on YouTube—it’s all grist for the mill.

    And together she and I are working on the right balance.

    Good luck with those preschoolers, John. Y’all might like Readeez.

  8. Isn’t social media the modern equivalent of spending hours and hours on phone calls — as I did with my teenage friends back in the pre-cordless telephone days of my youth in the 80s?

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  35. Unlimited screen time is certainly not the way to go. I tried and ended up feeling deprived at the end. I’m curious now, how should we solve the root problem of lacking community interaction?

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