Comment: Parental vigilance of social media can go too far

A shift from “monitoring” to “mentoring” can allow teens to learn to make their own wise choices.

By Lisa Jarvis / Bloomberg Opinion

Last spring, my tween was begging for more independence, starting with being allowed to walk home from school alone. The mile-plus walk involves crossing a few busy streets. I was hesitant; she doesn’t have a phone, so she had no way to contact me if something went wrong. But we practiced a few times (with me trailing her a block behind) to be sure she was confident of the route and talked about what she would do in various scenarios.

Then, we allowed her to do something that some parents in our uber-connected era might find truly wild: roam free.

The chance of something happening to her is vanishingly low, but it still took a few days to shed my anxiety. I reminded myself that building her independence requires mutual trust; and that comes with accepting some risk.

And failing to give kids sufficient independence carries risks, too. That’s a recurring theme of “Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World,” a new book by Devorah Heitner. There are downsides to constantly tracking our kids, whether that’s using Find My Phone to keep tabs on their locations or following their performance at school through apps like ClassDojo or PowerSchool. Even monitoring teens’ texts and perusing their social media accounts — as often suggested by parenting experts — can backfire.

“The culture of surveillance is shaping our children’s sense of identity and independence; and impacting our mental health, our family’s connectedness, and our ability to self-define in adulthood,” Heitner writes. “This impact starts as early as kindergarten.” This teaches our kids that it’s normal to be constantly surveilled, she argues. Living in this digital panopticon can increase their anxiety.

And hard though it may be to admit, parental vigilance can’t always keep kids safe. Constant supervision just gives us the illusion of control; it doesn’t prevent questionable decisions or bad grades. What’s needed is, as Heitner puts it, a shift from “monitoring” to “mentoring” so that teens learn to make their own wise choices. One of parenting’s challenges is walking that line.

Heitner’s perspective adds dimension to the conversation about the current teen mental health crisis. Whenever I’ve written about the alarming decline in the mental health of tweens and teens, I inevitably get a flurry of emails telling me that the source of the problem is clear: It’s all that TikTok and texting. The solution, therefore, is simple: Parents just need to be more on top of what’s going on in their teens’ digital lives; less social media, more boundaries, more monitoring.

But that instinct to keep kids safe through constant oversight might not always be the right one. At times, it could even do more harm than good.

Let me be clear: I’m a proponent of putting off phones and social media for as long as possible; and of forcing social media companies to make their products safer for younger users. Kids should not have free rein with TikTok and Snapchat, nor should parents be unaware of their tweens’ and teens’ inner lives. Social media certainly plays a role in kids’ deteriorating emotional state.

But so, perhaps, do our well-meaning attempts to cocoon kids from harm. “When we say we’re keeping an eye on our kids because they ‘make bad choices,’ we are robbing them of opportunities to develop good judgment and boundaries; and to think for themselves,” Heitner writes.

As kids first dabble in social media, it makes sense to provide structure, rules and some oversight, and Heitner and others certainly have advice on how to do that. But ideally, they earn independence over time through mutual trust.

In the process, they will undoubtedly experience uncomfortable social situations and even make mistakes. But that, too, is part of growing up. As clinical psychologist Lisa Damour drives home in her recent book, “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents,” some struggle is normal, and learning to cope with adversity is critical to kids’ success later in life.

As Damour writes, “Mental health is not about feeling good. Distress comes with being human, and it certainly comes with a teenager dealing with the challenges and disappointments that are part of growing up.” Parents, with good intent, too often succumb to the urge to prevent or fix a problem rather than help kids learn how to manage their own emotions in a healthy way.

Giving kids space often defies our parental instincts; particularly our sense that more information about our kids’ inner lives is always better. But as they grow up, constantly supervising them isn’t a solution, either.

My kid has now walked home from school dozens of times. This fall, she asked to roam even further … and got her first Apple Watch, so she can text us if she needs to. Even though I trust her, the urge to constantly check in is strong. But so is my hope that it will fade.

Lisa Jarvis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, health care and the pharmaceutical industry. Previously, she was executive editor of Chemical & Engineering News.

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