Current Events

Social Media Cleanse for Kids

By Tom Holland February 15, 2023
3 kids smiling outside

I currently find myself in a serious negotiation; the outcome of which may impact my family’s life over the next few years. My adversary is skilled, driven, and she knows what she wants. She also knows me well enough to understand that things will likely go her way if she can just wait it out. I, on the other hand, believe I am winning the short-term battle, but the long-term war is a complete loss. 

My adversary in this familial discussion is my soon-to-be 13-year-old daughter. 

The Topic: When is she allowed to download Snapchat?

Our Positions: Her = tomorrow. Me = is forever too long to wait?

My hardliner approach on this issue has evolved over time. My 13-year-old adversary actually has an older sister, who has a number of social media feeds, Snapchat being one of them. I would say that child number 1 is an average device and social media user for her age. My wife and I have evolved our parenting strategy on this topic over time due to the realities that we have encountered:

  • First, we feel exceptionally lucky to have grown up in an era without social media and devices. 
  • Second, these things were introduced to us as adults when our brains were developed-which gave us the ability to determine how much of these we wanted (and for this, we feel extremely lucky). 
  • Third, we do not believe devices or social media are going away. 

Consequently, our strategy has never been one of going ‘cold-turkey’ when it comes to devices or social media. Rather, it has been about creating a healthy relationship, at a time when our kids can navigate that social world with maturity. 

However, recently, when I consider the post covid world and consider the stressors on youth today, I wonder if our strategy needs amending. Kids today are experiencing mental health challenges at an alarming rate. These trends were on the rise prior to Covid-19, and the pandemic seems to have exacerbated the issue. The prevalence of social media and access to devices seems like a logical link to the growing problem. In fact, the Seattle school district has seen such a connection between the youth mental health crisis and social media that they have decided to sue tech giants over social media harm. 

The other day, I found myself catching up with an educator friend of mine who is a high school principal near Washington, DC. He acknowledged the mental health crisis in his students and, like the Seattle schools, linked the issue with the prevalence of social media in the lives of kids. He referenced how Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers once thought of cigarettes in the 60s and 70s as something to which you just needed to develop a healthy relationship. That shifted when it was discovered that tobacco can kill you. Today, people scratch their heads as they wonder how we let so many young people back then get addicted to them. He wondered if one day, we would feel the same about social media with our kids. Will our children one day grow up to ask: how did you allow me to do something that is so detrimental to my health and my mind? 

These are big questions for parents to consider as they try to run kids to soccer, make dinner, get lunches made, and if you are still reading, consider summer plans for their kid. So many of us, our household included, do our best and make allowances for social media time and devices. The fight just doesn’t seem worth it at this juncture.

What are we left to do? Well, acknowledging that shielding kids from devices and social media is probably not a viable long-term strategy and we must dive fully into creating a healthy balance strategy. The balance we strive for is both micro (day-to-day) and macro (setting aside big chunks of time to be device free). The first is easier, we just limit phone use on a daily basis and when attention is needed for other things (i.e. school work). For the macro, we lean on programs like ours at Wilderness Adventures, to provide disconnection from social media for weeks at a time.  

Every year, kids approach our disconnect policy with apprehension. They wonder who they will be without their feed. Will they miss out on something special? How will they manage without the likes and daily emoji boosters that make them feel good? But nearly all our students return from their time with us with a healthier outlook on how they approach using their device. When we give phones back to our students at the culmination of their adventure, they look at them with trepidation, not wanting to return to their reality which is dictated by their social feed. However, the social cleanse inevitably works, as they head home with a healthy knowledge of what life is like without their feed and they know they can survive, and even thrive without it. In a way, the cleanse is a brief window into the world that so many of us parents have: it is a recognition of a time when these things did not matter to us and thus we developed a healthier relationship with our devices.   

The negotiation is not yet complete. But one thing I know for sure, no matter what the immediate outcome is on this issue, I will impose one non-negotiable condition for our daughter: we will mandate a ‘social media cleanse’ lasting four weeks this summer. In that time, I know she will grow in many ways, and one of the best outcomes will be a healthier relationship she has with her phone.

Wish me luck!