The growing consensus among experts these days is that parents should focus more on mentoring their kids online than on monitoring them, which is the track one Kensington mom has decided to take with her three children.
When security issues arose about the TikTok app a few years ago, Audrey spoke to her 12-year-old daughter, Rachel, about “stranger danger” and restated the need for Rachel to keep her account private. (Audrey asked that her real name and the name of her daughter not be used in this story.) She tries not to bristle when Rachel or her brothers—who are 9 and 14—come to the dinner table with their iPhones. Instead, she gently reminds them to put away the electronics, mindful to engage in conversations rather than confrontations. But sometimes she grapples with her own decisions.
Recently, when Rachel had a fallout with her friends that played out in a string of texts, Audrey was kicking herself for not intervening sooner. As the spat continued, Rachel’s closest friends cut her off from their group chats, which left her—and her mother—reeling. “I feel as if I’m watching her ice skate, and when she’s having fun, I’m all good. When the ice cracks beneath her, then I’m mad at myself, like, how did I not see this coming?” says Audrey, who follows her daughter on social media and occasionally checks her texts. “When I went through this kind of thing in middle school, my mother had no idea. She wasn’t walking alongside me.” But now, problems that erupt in school follow kids home on their devices. “I’m trying not to tell her what to do,” Audrey says, “but it’s all happening in front of me.”
Rachel’s parents gave her an iPhone toward the end of fifth grade so they could keep tabs on her as her roster of after-school activities grew. The preteen joined several group chats, including one with about 40 classmates and another that kept her connected with friends from summer camp. Her online activities eventually expanded to include Instagram and Snapchat. She says social media can be a burden. “On the chat groups, it feels like you have to read every single [post] because you don’t want to lose track of what’s happening,” or what others might be saying about you, Rachel says. It’s also tough to decipher someone’s tone. “It’s hard to tell if someone is joking or being sarcastic.”
While Rachel is grateful for her mother’s support, she’s not quite sure what to make of it. “It can be a good thing and a bad thing,” Rachel says. “I want her to tell me what’s good and what’s bad, but at the same time, not many of my friends have their parents following them, like watching what they’re doing. So sometimes I’m kind of like, ‘Leave me alone.’ ”
Her mother laughs. “It’s funny that [my daughter] thinks her friends’ parents are not walking alongside them,” Audrey says. “They do. We are all keeping our eye on our kids.”
And sometimes even other people’s kids. Vicki Klein, a clinical social worker in North Bethesda who specializes in anxiety, says parents are often at a loss on how to handle what they see their children’s friends doing online. One mother was on her daughter’s Instagram account when she noticed that one of the girl’s friends had posted a close-up of her eyeball with a tear in it. The caption read: “My life sucks.” The mom decided to tell the friend’s family, and it turned out the child was just having a bad day. “But that parent did the right thing,” Klein says. “I think parents struggle with how closely to monitor their kids’ social media accounts, and at what point is it an invasion of privacy.”
The struggle may be moot, given that every generation of kids usually manages to outsmart their parents, which helps explain the popularity of “finsta,” or fake Instagram accounts. People typically limit their finsta following to a small, select group and share more candid posts in that space than they do on their main Instagram account. “These are posts that kids don’t want everyone else to see,” Klein says. A positive takeaway is that children may be starting to understand that they need to be discerning when sharing information, she says, but they don’t necessarily understand that their posts for a perceived limited audience can still be shared.
Many parents are navigating this new terrain without any role models from their childhood, making it difficult for them to distinguish “normal” from “problematic.” Dana Spencer, a mother of three boys in Bethesda, believes today’s parents are raising an “experimental generation,” which is why she erred on the side of caution when her two oldest sons—now 16 and 19—were younger. Spencer and her husband drafted a contract for them.
“We were trying to limit screen time to no more than one hour a day during the week” she says. “But it got muddled up. We struggled with what’s legitimate use of the screen and what isn’t?” Was doing homework online past the one-hour mark OK? What about making movies, an artistic endeavor that her oldest son got into in middle school and is still pursuing in college? The family kept revisiting the contract and tweaking it.
Only recently, after reading The Art of Screen Time by Anya Kamenetz, did Spencer learn to relax and embrace what’s good about the technology her boys love so much. In her book, Kamenetz plays with Michael Pollan’s famous take on food in offering advice to parents: Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly with others.
Now, with her 12-year-old son, Gray, she uses parental controls to shut down his internet access at 9:30 p.m. so that she doesn’t have to pester or police him. She limits his screen use to homework on school nights, but on weekends she allows him more freedom without enforcing limits.
“I had a shift in thinking,” says Spencer, a certified parenting educator at the Parent Encouragement Program, a nonprofit in Kensington. “I started thinking about what are they getting from screens, as opposed to how should I protect them from screens.”
Spencer was spooked when her oldest son spent hours on the screen making videos and then creating his own YouTube channel, but the exercise fostered his love of moviemaking. Her middle son spends a lot of time playing video games with his friends, but he’s an outgoing guy with good grades, and the games are an important social space for him, she says.
“I realized that sometimes we look at our kids on their screens and think they’re wasting time, but they’re actually doing work on themselves and trying to figure out who they are,” Spencer says. “So now, instead of fighting a battle that I feel I can never win, I’ve given myself permission to embrace the technology. Nothing has changed in the household, I just feel more comfortable about it.”
Dina ElBoghdady spent more than two decades as a journalist at several newspapers, most recently The Washington Post.