Lindsay Sealey is the author of Growing Strong Girls: Practical Tools to Cultivate Connection in the Preteen Years. She is also the founder and chief executive of Bold New Girls and lives in Vancouver.
"Can I please get an Instagram account?"
Canadian parents are fielding this question from daughters as young as six or seven and facing heavy pressure to give in. Let's face it, the ways in which parents used to connect with friends – phone calls, passing notes in class and even e-mail – are uncool today. What your daughter really wants, and apparently needs, is a smartphone.
It's easy to understand why girls want to enter the world of social media so badly – it's fun and entertaining, and everybody's doing it. "FOMO," or "fear of missing out," is a powerful force. According to a report by Common Sense Media, a U.S.-based non-profit organization that helps parents, educators and kids navigate the world of media and technology, teens spend an average of more than six-and-a-half hours a day on screens, tweens more than four-and-a-half hours.
This is almost as much time as they spend sleeping.
Girls are hard-wired to seek social bonding. While they may see social media as a tantalizing source of connection, it is actually a major source of disconnection and obsession. Social media is the site of digital drama, including cyberbullying and girl meanness, and the cause of hyper-stimulation, screen addiction and body-image concerns.
Despite the risks, most parents accept that getting on social media may be inevitable for a growing girl today. As adults, it is our responsibility to limit its risks and do what we can to model and cultivate true connection with the girls in our lives. After journeying alongside girls and their families for more than 15 years as an educator and consultant, and after countless in-depth conversations, I have come up with these strategies:
Delay her entry into social media as long as you can. Ideally, wait until she is 13, when her thinking skills are more developed and she can better understand unwritten rules that emerge from social media, such as how to post and how often. Holding out is a tough sell, but worth the effort. Explain the hidden stressors of social media in a way she understands, by connecting it to stress she may already have. For example, if she already has a busy extracurricular schedule and wishes she had more time to play, point out that social media will eat up even more of her precious free time.
Discuss how much, how often and in what way she will use social media. Create guidelines together and she will feel invested in them and will be much more likely to stick to them. In my coaching practice, I recommend limiting young teen's social media use to one hour a day. Timing is important, too. Together, you might agree that weekday mornings, when she's rushing to get out the door for school, are not for social media. Or that she should only log on after homework is finished but not right before bed. Discuss what your family considers appropriate in posts and comments. Remind her never to share personal details such as her real full name or address, and that she should aim to be sincere, kind and authentic online, just as she would in person.
Prepare her for triggers. Girls can easily see more than 3,000 images in a single day on social media, which can cause overwhelming stress. As Peggy Orenstein wrote in her book, Girls & Sex, "the more they look at others' pictures, whether close friends or distant peers, the more unhappy they become about their own appearance." Your daughter needs to know what to do if she feels diminished by celebrities' "perfect" posts or pictures of other girls who seem to her to be so much prettier, more popular and happier than she is. Help her shift her attention away from comparing and competing to valuing her own uniqueness. For example, create a poster together highlighting her strengths, interests, talents, goals and her favourite and least favourite things.
Give her resources to combat problems when troubles arise online. Possible remedies include withdrawing from a group chat, deleting mean comments, blocking a problematic "troll," standing up for herself by telling a bully it is not okay to be cruel and reporting any abusive language or behaviour. Be a safe space for her, staying calm yourself and not overreacting, assuring her she can always come to you if she feels confused or upset by disturbing posts containing sexual or violent content.
Learn how to use social media yourself. Your daughter is much more likely to be open to your guidance if she can see that you know what you're talking about. Give her favourite social-media platforms a try and learn the language. Understanding how to use a filter and knowing what a "snap streak" is can help you to find common ground with her. You can ask her for some tools and tricks, too – let her showcase her expertise as she teaches you.
Spend time with her. It's impossible for parents to completely eliminate risks arising from social-media use, but the very best way to inoculate your daughter from them is to spend time connecting with her offline. According to research published in the journal Paediatrics & Child Health, secure parent-child attachment is linked to less high-risk behaviour, enhanced social and coping skills and fewer mental-health problems. Plan activities that you can do together, so she can feel the difference between being on a screen and sharing real, lived experiences with you. This will teach her to find her worth in her own personality and the quality of her relationships, rather than the number of likes and followers she gets.