Louise Irwin believes there’s a temptation for kids inherent within social media which we need to watch out for
There is a story told of a sophisticated and successful nation who sought power over their own destiny; a culture that had become so self-obsessed and self-motivated that they believed that the greatest achievement of all was fame itself. In fact, their motto was ‘make a name for yourself’.
As a parent of teens, I’m often struck by how different my teenage years were to my children’s. How can I parent them well when the things they are experiencing are so foreign to me? If I’m struggling to be relevant, 30 years after I started teenage life, then what can the Bible possibly have to say about our current fame-driven culture? Incredibly, that self-obsessed nation, longing to make a name for themselves, was the ancient nation of Babylon, written about in Genesis chapter 11. They built the tower of Babel so they could reach God (they had achieved everything else, they thought) and ‘make a name for themselves’. ‘Making a name for ourselves’ is a phrase that rolls around our lexicon and off the tongue with ease. We, just like the people of Babel, are obsessed with making our own names great.
Nothing expresses this fame-driven ideal more starkly than social media. It has grown from a place to show friends a few photos of what’s happening in our lives, to a marketplace where the main commodity is ourselves. We advertise our lives, showing the best bits, the tidy parts, the attractive corners and hiding away the messy, ugly cupboards under the stairs. It’s a carefully curated picture of the best bits of our lives.
When I was a parent of small children, I used to feel very inadequate in my messy house, not doing crafts. I often thought that I could easily have produced a social media account about, at best, mediocre parenting, which would not have been very aesthetically pleasing, but even that would have been only one small glimpse of what life was really like. We never see the whole picture on social media. As adults, we know that. We know that social media doesn’t tell the whole truth and we are aware that, a lot of the time, people are trying to sell - a lifestyle, a brand, a product. We know it and yet we are fooled. We are influenced without meaning to be, our brains are flooded with dopamine as we scroll and like and receive likes. In fairness, there’s also a lot of watching cute dog videos and that’s probably ok…
But what about our teens? My 1990s teenage years seem incredibly different to the experience my own children are having. My hair hadn’t been within spitting distance of a pair of straighteners, for a start, and the only phone belonged to the whole family and was connected to the wall with a curly wire. I didn’t expect hundreds of people to say I looked good (thankfully) or that they liked me; validation was much more personal. But those simpler times have disappeared! My teenage daughter communicates with countless friends each day via a myriad of social media apps that I couldn’t even have imagined at her age. So back to the question – how can we parent children who are navigating through such unknown territory?
Well, for a start, don’t panic. Our own parents hadn’t experienced many of the things that were quintessential to our teenage years… watching ‘My so-called Life’, recording the top-40 charts off the radio, CDs… but it didn’t stop them from figuring out how to keep us on the straight and narrow.
Walk the talk
As with most things, if we are telling our children to behave in one way but not following through in our own lives, they will find it harder to take our advice. So how to parent this fame-obsessed generation? Start with ourselves. Put your phone down. (I have to repeat this to myself several times a day… and night) It’s been reported that the people at the very heart of creating technology and social media, such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, have publicly spoken about how they were very strict about how much time (if any) their children spent on screens. They knew that there was great potential for social media to be extremely damaging to young people; according to the Child Mind Institute, social media has the potential to cause anxiety, low self-esteem and can encourage bullying. The dopamine hit we get, even from watching those cute dog videos, is addictive.
Watch out for the influencers
Be influenced by the right people and let your children see that too. The Bible talks about living a quiet life, a fulfilling life doing the things that God has called us to do (1 Thessalonians 4:11). In reality, none of us is perfect – of course we like affirmation, some of us are gifted at making a tea towel and a coffee cup look like a piece of art (not me, unfortunately) and there’s no doubt social media can bring people together and really can’t be avoided if you’re trying to run a business but, as with everything, motive is key. What are we really trying to achieve when we post or scroll – feeding our dopamine habit, seeking affirmation, making a name for ourselves? Point your children towards people, in real life, who are worthy of their attention – people living quiet and ordinary lives as well as those who are doing extraordinary and exciting things, people who are living lives that bring glory to God. Ultimately, point them towards God and they’ll discover that their name is not the important one. The name above all names is the one they, and we, should be focussed on making great.
Of course, parenting is a masterclass in negotiation and this issue is no different than any other. We might have declared that our children won’t see a screen until they are 25 but then half an hour of peace and a few episodes of Bluey feels like a mini spa break. Equally, we might have thought our teens wouldn’t go near social media until they were fully formed adults, but the reality is it’s very difficult to have a blanket ban on social media. It seems much more realistic to walk alongside our teens in this, figuring out a way forward together, setting some ground rules and trying to be consistent with them. The unfortunate thing about parenting is that it’s a real learn-on-the-job activity – none of us actually has it all figured out – and once you’ve got one stage sorted they move right into a new phase! Parenting is never easy, not in fame-obsessed Babel (I imagine) or social media obsessed 2024, but all we can do is come before God, with the children he has given us to care for, and ask him to help us.