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99 Problems

As I write this, I’m toiling over how to talk to my daughter about an impulsive—and massive—deleting mission I just carried out on the battlefield of her electronic device. And honestly, my hesitation is not a result of any shocking activity on her part, or of an earth shattering discovery I’ve made, but rather my acknowledgement that my reaction was somewhat out of character.

Candidly, I’ve found it to be easy to both trust my kids on their electronics, as well as talk to them about any of my own concerns or worrisome trends that arise related to apps like YouTube or Tik Tok. The gray area between black and white decisions like good and bad, yes and no, or keep and delete has felt comfortable so far because of what I know about my kids and how they respond and react when I’m concerned. But suddenly it seems obvious that I was missing some less-obvious issues that may be difficult to address with filters, check-ins, and honest conversation. Maybe there are just some things that just aren’t right for my daughter right now.

Thinking back over the last few weeks, I’ve had some humorous—though some admittedly concerning—conversations with other parents about what our kids are finding on YouTube in particular. At dinner last week, a friend of mine smiled, opening our conversation with, “So, I have this story for you…” We snickered as he read me a text from a family member with perfect anticipation-building storytelling, asking him to “not freak out.” I quickly learned the plot was indeed concerning. And so were the links sent from herYouTube history containing videos their kids were watching together at a Father’s Day cookout the previous day. Reading titles like, “How to Have Sex Without Your Parents Seeing” and noting the accompanying bare skin, it was painful to imagine his 9-year-old daughter and her similarly-aged cousins stumbling across this type of unsolicited advice.

And by the way, do your kids watch the Yeagers on YouTube? My best friend asked me the same question a few weeks ago, to which I replied, “I have no idea.” Uh-oh. Turns out, it’s just a reality tv-esque family who calls their YouTube channel Shot of the Yeagers. My friend’s 6 year old was nice enough to share this, as I mentally travelled back to my college years. Content-wise, everything is sound. But I was starting to feel the vulnerability my kids are up against in a very real way.

My strategy became clear pretty quickly, and is in line with a lot of other strategies I value when it comes to both parenting and helping parents: Do the best you can with what you know. And try to know more.

These are the guidelines I’m focusing on right now—until other ones need attention.

Some people are more sensitive than others

I know my kids can be quite sensitive at times, and each will show it in a different way. In general, certain types of violence, language, and mature content lend themselves to an easy black-and-white decision to put something your child wants on the chopping block. But it gets murky with these apps because you’ll find things like usernames containing taboo topics, or kids reaching out for support on heavy topics. It’s hard to know where to draw the line when it comes to limiting access to apps like YouTube and TikTok when you’re in a gray area.

Gray issues sometimes require gray solutions. Monitoring truly is necessary, but the right mindset is required in order for this to be productive. Continue talking with your child about the issues you notice and try not to make fear-based decisions. Give your child space to navigate new territory, but also feel confident in your ability to know when to shut it down. This is where I found myself in monitoring my daughter’s accounts—she just wasn’t ready.

Be objective, not afraid

When we are worried for our kids, it can feel comforting to jump to conclusions. Jumping to conclusions about the cause of a problem can be counterproductive because, naturally, it consumes energy that could be used solving the actual problem—ultimately delaying relief. I often notice a confusing and overwhelming ‘clumping’ of technology, social media, behavior, violence, and brain impact with regard to parents making decisions about access to technology.

Scientists at the University of Oxford published a really important paper in January 2019, noting the poor link between existing literature and advice provided to caregivers and educators. They recommended a better way to examine and analyze data for future research.

While we continue to gather more information and emerging research pointing us in the right direction, consider this: use of technology in excess of parental preference can often be a symptom of a problem. In working with families, I find that when we solve a lot of the other problems happening at home and help a child address unmet expectations, the symptoms related to technology use lessen or dissipate. We tend to feel better about a child’s well-being when we can take steps to address problematic behaviors.

Find creative ways to redirect

We are moving in a direction where all signs point to social media playing an integral role in our ability to create and sustain relationships, pursue personal growth, and obtain professional and financial success. It’s unrealistic to excessively limit or discourage what a child will eventually require in order to explore her interests and life’s work. Much of the most successful and cutting edge marketing campaigns are conducting on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, for example.

I get it. I’ve heard all of the aspiring YouTube millionaires and I’ve seen the corresponding parental eye rolls. But think about it. If your child wants to try generating ads on his YouTube channel, he could learn valuable skills by reading and researching the how-to’s, while gaining some entrepreneurial skills along the way. These types of skills will give a child some leverage, and at the same time keep him from spending that time on less productive options. Find similar ways to encourage technology beyond educational games, which can sometimes feel like a punishment.

Summer can be difficult to muddle through, and the silent calm that accompanies a child on an electronic device sometimes (almost always) feels euphoric. Perhaps if we can learn to feel more comfortable in that gray zone, we can start tackling those other 98 problems.

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