A huge part of parenting in the 21st century is figuring out how to navigate our kids’ relationship with the internet. On one hand, we are deep into the technological age, where screens and the internet are an integral part of learning and staying connected with others. On the other hand, the online world comes with countless alluring and addictive pitfalls, which conscientious parents hope to help their kids avoid as long as possible.
Of all the elements of the internet that concern parents, social media sits near the top. The worst parts of kid and teen culture—comparison and competition, bullying, self-esteem issues, toxic body image messaging, etc.—are all amplified on social media. Saying no may sound simple enough, but anyone with kids knows they can be master negotiators and it’s hard to tell your kids they can’t be where all their friends are.
Actor and mom Jennifer Garner has managed to do just that, however, with a simple but effective approach that goes a step beyond just saying no.
Garner has three kids, ages 17, 13 and 11, whom she co-parents with ex-husband Ben Affleck. She has been outspoken about not letting her kids on social media, saying she doesn’t “see anything positive” in it for them. But she doesn’t just tell them they can’t and leave it at that.
In an interview with the “Today” show, Hoda Kotb asked Garner how she manages to keep her teens off of social media without them hating her.
“I just said to my kids, ‘Show me the articles that prove that social media is good for teenagers, and then we’ll have the conversation,'” Garner said. “Find scientific evidence that matches what I have that says that it’s not good for teenagers, then we’ll chat.'”
Brilliant. Not only does that approach put the onus on the kids to make a solid argument backed up by solid evidence, but it removes the parental power struggle altogether. It’s not “No, because I said so,” but “No, because I love you and want you to be healthy, and the research shows this isn’t healthy. But if you can find research to the contrary, I’m willing to reconsider.” It’s empowering because it invites kids to make the case for themselves.
Of course, kids are going to be hard-pressed to find scientific research to match the evidence that social media does more harm than good, especially for young people. So either they’ll understand their parents’ position by diving into the research or they won’t bother trying because it’s not important enough to them to put in the effort. Either way, the responsibility falls on their shoulders to make an argument beyond “but everybody else has it.”
Singer Pink has a similar rule for her daughter Willow when it comes to getting a phone.
“I told her, point blank, ‘If you can produce literature from a reputable source that tells me that social media is good for you, then you can be on it. Otherwise, good luck”” Pink shared on KTU 103.5.
The “show me the research” approach seems to be working for Garner. Kotb asked how her kids feel about it, and Garner said her 17-year-old is “grateful.” She admitted that parenting is “a long haul” and that she still has two more kids to go, so “knock on wood,” but so far so good.
Even adults can struggle to keep a healthy balance when it comes to social media and smartphone use, so sharing the research with kids and teens early on isn’t a bad idea. There’s no harm in delaying the struggles that inevitably come with social media, and the more parents push back against the “norm” of early exposure in smart and effective ways, the better off our kids will be in the long run.