Digital Divide: The Generational Pull, and Power, of Social Media

Digital Divide:
The Generational Pull, and Power, of Social Media

Walking through our student center recently, I observed a group of students huddled around the same small table, yet each focused on the phone in their palm. Those devices are a reminder to all of us non-digital natives of just how different our kids’ experiences are from our own.

Adolescent drama and big feelings transcend generations. Many of the issues our students grapple with are the same that we faced decades ago. But in my era, I had space when I got home. Crossing the invisible fence from school to home, there was a mental break from the day. A tense or awkward exchange at school would fade thanks to the distraction of my neighborhood friends or my siblings. The distance from school gave me a chance to reset; it offered a comfortable and safe escape. Back then I might have suspected I was left out of something or hadn’t been invited to an event, but I didn’t know for sure. Today, we have photos and social media serving as constant reminders. We’re measuring our worth in likes and video views, and it’s increasingly hard to turn away.

As technology, and social media specifically, transforms the society in which our children are emerging, I find myself wondering: What is the impact of not being able to have that safe escape, and what can we do about it?

A new Pew Research Center survey found that fully 35% of teens say they are using at least one social platform “almost constantly.” Moreover, 97% of teens identify as using the internet and social media daily, though their digital appetite might vary. For example, teen boys are more likely than teen girls to say they use YouTube, Twitch and Reddit, whereas teen girls are more likely than teen boys to use TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat. 

Whether it's daily or constant use, it seems our children don’t get a reprieve. Kids continue to hit each other with hurtful comments via texts and group chats and social media apps offer visual proof that they weren’t invited. What does that do to our kids? How does it frame their reality? 

The good news is that we’re a highly adaptive species, and we develop self-protective mechanisms. But it’s still early days in this brave new world. This generation hasn’t adapted just yet. Perhaps that’s why we see students (and grown-ups, too!) say things in texts or emails or via Instagram comments that they would never vocalize in person. We lose some humanity in our interactions when they happen behind screens.

At a recent MBS parent coffee, Middle School counselor Dr. Sam Tuttle reminded us that, “technology can be a tremendously powerful tool in our lives and your child’s education. However, that power comes with risks”. While on campus we walk students through our tech policy, Dr. Tuttle reminds us that, “outside of school, parents and guardians provide limits and support. Even more important, you provide your children with your values." 

I’ve been following Dr. Jacqueline Nesi, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University and a clinical psychologist. Her research tracks teens who are vulnerable to the negative impacts of social media and probes why. Her recent findings indicate that social media use and friendship quality have unique roles in adolescents' internalizing problems and well-being. But the research is just being released and we don’t yet have conclusive best practices.

Knowing that 97% of teens are online, as parents and educators we may never be as technologically adept as this generation. Yet we’ve had years to develop our sense of self– with far less input from strangers on the internet. So, as we try to answer these big questions together, we can start by simply showing empathy to the challenges faced by adolescents. And we can also add what Dr. Nesi calls “gates, not fences” to help encourage breaks and escapes from the noise. If you’re wondering how to build a gate, here’s her 5-minute guide to the latest parental control options for social media, smartphones, and tablets. 

As we approach Thanksgiving and a spate of family gatherings, may we all take a break from the perfect images projected on social media and instead be in the moment with the people and experiences that matter to us and give us joy.