‘Instagram stole my daughter’

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On any given morning, you can walk through the eighth-grade hallway at Oakcrest School, an independent, all-girls Catholic school in McLean, and see groups of young women chatting and laughing by their lockers. At Oakcrest, middle schoolers are not allowed to have smartphones on the property. Over in the ninth-grade hallway, high schoolers, who are allowed to use smartphones before and after school, are sitting on the ground, scrolling through their phones.

“The difference between the eighth-grade and the ninth-grade hallway is dramatic,” said Kate Hadley, director of mentoring and parent enrichment.

Social media and the technology that makes it instantly and easily accessible have only existed for little more than decade. Now, doctors, educators, parents and others are learning how social media affects adolescents. As part of their parent enrichment program, Oakcrest invited Dr. Leonard Sax, author of Girls on the Edge and The Collapse of Parenting, to give a talk March 10 titled “Instagram stole my daughter” about the effect of social media on teenage girls.

Sax, a family physician and psychologist, began with an explanation of how the culture has changed in the past 50 years. He believes there has been a disintegration of bonds across generations. Today, peers hang out with one another and place less value on what their parents think. This can be harmful as peer friendships are often short-lived, while a parent’s love is unconditional, he said.

In contrast, in the 1960s, “the majority of American teens valued their parents’ opinion more than the combined opinion of all their friends,” he said. Today in popular culture, particularly on children and family television shows, parents are portrayed as stupid and goofy. Sax calls this a symptom of the growing “culture of disrespect.”

Facebook was created just 13 years ago and Instagram seven years ago. In the “ancient” days of 1997, joked Sax, a young girl would spend an evening writing in her dairy, working out for herself the types of things she cared about and who she wanted to be. Today, more than half of all American 12-year-olds are on Instagram, according to Nielsen. Teenage girls spend a lot of time on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. There, they look for peer affirmation, and subconsciously, alter their persona to what earns them the most “likes.”

Boys also use social media, said Sax, but the sexes differ dramatically in how they use it. Girls are five times more likely to post on social media and are most likely to post photos of themselves.  “The performance never ends,” said Sax. “It's exhausting.” Boys focus the camera on other things.

Social media users often choose the most attractive and interesting pictures of their lives, which can make young girls feel as if their peers live better, more exciting lives. The more time they spend on social media, the more likely they are to become depressed. Young men, however, are not as affected by this, said Sax. “It turns out that boys greatly overestimate how interesting their own lives are.”

At the end of the talk, Sax gave a list of recommendations to parents primarily based on a 2013 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children younger than 13 are not mature enough to be on social media or to have a smartphone, he said. When you do allow a teenager to have a cellphone or accounts on social media, first install apps on their devices, such as My Mobile Watchdog or Net Nanny, that lets you monitor what they’re seeing and doing. These programs can help set time limits for social media, block pornography and prevent sexually suggestive photos from being sent.

Though these programs may seem like an invasion of privacy, everyone must understand that “there is no such thing as an expectation to privacy once you send a photo or put it on social media,” he said.

The Lord’s Prayer says “lead us not into temptation” because God knows once the temptation is in front of us, we are likely to fall, said Sax. Likewise, parents need to protect their children from the temptations of the internet. “This is your job —  it’s not fair to put this on a 13-year-old,” he said. “Give your daughter an excuse to say, ‘no.’ ”

Sax also advises that all smartphones be used in common areas, never in a child’s bedroom. Families should eat dinner together without cellphones and after a certain time of night, parents should take the phone away. If possible, get your child a “dumb” phone —  one that can only accept and make calls.

Smartphones and social media are not inherently bad or good, said Sax. They’re simply tools. But parental supervision is essential to those tools being used correctly.

“This is a very grown-up device,” he said. “If you’re going to put such a device in the hands of a child, then you are responsible.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017

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