Healthy Parenting in an Age of Social Media Monsters 1

Local Parents Eager to Discuss “How to Raise an Adult”

I could have never predicted how much interest my August Roaring Fork Lifestyle article on the book How to Raise on Adult would generate. For weeks following the magazine article’s release, friends and even strangers would engage me around town or email me to say that they, too, had found the book’s ideas fascinating.

The Basalt library invited me to serve on a panel with local therapist Kathy Hegburg and Peter Mueller, principal of Basalt High School. The Carbondale Community School invited me to lead a parent discussion on the book. This spring, Ross Montessori plans to have me lead yet another discussion on a parent education. Clearly, I was not the only one for whom the ideas in the book resonated.

Interestingly, each local discussion about the book has evolved into the challenging question of how to parent through the era of social media. The mainstream media fuels our fear of parenting in the digital age. Just recently, for example, parents have been shaken by the story of a 13-year-old girl who met her college-aged murderers through the popular teen messaging app “Kik”.

In the context of social media, how does one protect a child, while allowing him or her the independence to learn from mistakes? Local parents self-professed ignorance on the topic and yearned for guidance on how to regulate their child’s online activity.

Local discussions around How to Raise an Adult have been powerful. As a parent and a college adviser of high school students, I had devoured every word of the book, written a review about it and was excited to discuss it. The notion that the way our generation takes care of its children could actually turn them into depressed adults who lack resiliency disturbed me.

The book’s author, former Stanford Dean of Students Julia Lythcott Haims, had noticed that, each year, more and more Stanford students were incapable of advocating for and taking care of themselves following scripted and over-scheduled childhoods full of AP tests and activities. They were ineffectual adults, unable to hear their own voices in their heads or to persevere through hardship and the unknowns of life.

The author reached out to deans at other colleges—colleges at all levels of academic rigor—to discover that increasingly depressed students existed on their campuses as well. Lythcott Haims sought to illuminate a societal problem. She wrote this powerful book to help us all parent more effectively.

Up and down the Roaring Fork Valley, dozens of parents, grandparents, educators, and therapists joined me to discuss the book’s themes. Most parents agreed that the fast-paced lives their children lead were exhausting for not only the children, but for them, too. Local psychologist Kathy Hegburg commented, “In all of my years of therapy, I have never seen so many stressed out and depressed children. Children and their parents are struggling today.”

The themes of the book seem to resonate even in our bucolic Roaring Fork Valley.

At the Carbondale Community School, parent Liz Penzel commented that “there are many extreme examples and the media does a lot of fear mongering” but she cautioned, “We can’t let social norming drive our behaviors.” Social norming—which occurs when individuals incorrectly believe that the attitudes or behaviors of others are different from their own, when in reality they are similar—can lead to fearing monsters that may not really exist in the places or proportions we imagine. Penzel observed, “We have to parent through social media challenges just like every other challenge, discussing these issues with our kids and educating ourselves and our children about risks. We have to guide them through this world, and not shield them from it.”

For parents, the challenge remains how to better educate ourselves about the social media world. There’s much to learn, and reason for concern. The app Ask.fm is rated for ages 13 and over, but some kids have used it for hurtful cyber-bullying that has been linked to suicides, including a 12-year-old in Florida. Twenty-somethings use Tinder to hook up for one night stands, but the app’s privacy policy allows teens as young as 13 to register. There are even “jailbreaker” apps that enable kids to get around age limits that parents place on kids’ phones and mobile devices.

Parent Diana Desala Lane, who had been frustrated in trying to find materials to help her learn more about parenting through social media, offered a useful tip. “The best resource I have found is 
CommonSenseMedia.org. 
They wrapped up an extensive study that is very educational.”

The landmark Common Sense Media report was also discussed by National Public Radio (NPR) commentator Diane Rehm last fall. Parents interested in the study can still listen to the episode online.

My cousin, Dr. Michael Rich, founder and director of the Center for Media and Child Health at Harvard, a featured expert on the NPR show, commented, “For social and emotional development, the most powerful learning tool and brain-building tool is human connection, and we cannot forget that… We have traded away connectedness for connectivity.” He expressed frustration at our government for its lack of willingness to fund more research on the impact of media on youth.

Clearly the challenge of parenting through the digital age is our generation’s biggest hurdle.